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North Korea Says It’s Now a Nuclear State. Could That Mean It’s Ready to Talk?


SEOUL, South Korea — After sending an intercontinental ballistic missile higher than ever before on Wednesday, North Korea said it had mastered nuclear-strike capability and become a full-fledged nuclear state. That claim was immediately met with skepticism.

But by showing that its missiles can reach Washington — even if there is doubt that they can deliver a nuclear warhead there — the North took yet another step toward that goal. So its latest test raised a question the United States and its allies seem likely to have to answer sooner or later: Is it time to accept that North Korea will never give up its nuclear arms, and try to reach a deal to stop its arsenal from growing further?

China and Russia have been pushing for an agreement that would freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear program, in exchange for a suspension of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. The United States rejects the idea.

The North has repeatedly made clear that it would never give up its nuclear ambitions. But its statement after Wednesday’s launch — saying it had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force” — seemed to suggest that it had attained them. If so, at least in theory, it might be open to stopping there.

That would fit into what many officials and analysts have long believed to be North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s game plan. They say he wants to have his country recognized as a nuclear power so he can then gain concessions, such as the easing of sanctions, in return for a freeze of his nuclear arsenal.

But even if the North were signaling now that it is open to such discussions, for the United States and its allies to accept it might be politically impossible. It would mean a break from decades of nonproliferation policy, and it could trigger a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia.

“Kim Jong-un is diverting all of his resources to a mad dash to get to a demonstration of a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States, in the hopes that it will so frighten the U.S. and the world that we will agree to pay ransom, that we will pay him hush money, that we will pay him off in sanctions relief and other concessions in exchange for relative good behavior, no more tests, no more threats,” Daniel R. Russel, who was the United States assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs from 2013 until March, told reporters in Beijing.

“That’s a fool’s deal,” Mr. Russel said.

Analysts in South Korea doubted that the North was signaling a willingness to discuss a freeze. Rather, they said, Pyongyang is blustering to buy time, and it will not be seriously interested in talks with Washington until it truly acquires the capabilities it claims to have, after more tests.

The North said its launch Wednesday was of a new intercontinental ballistic missile called the Hwasong-15, which it said could deliver “super-large heavy” warheads anywhere in the mainland United States. It flew higher and longer — to an altitude of 2,800 miles, and for 53 minutes — than its Hwasong-14 ICBM did when the North tested it twice in July.

But there are reasons to suspect that the North was exaggerating its capabilities. Though the missile flew high, the North did not send it far; it splashed down in waters just 600 miles from the launch site. Nor has the North shown that it has a warhead that can survive the intense heat and friction of re-entering the earth’s atmosphere from space, a crucial technological hurdle.

Slideshow by photo services

On a normal trajectory, a missile that can soar 2,800 miles into space could indeed fly far enough to reach New York and Washington from North Korea, missile experts said. But they said the North could have launched its missile on Wednesday with a very light mock warhead or no payload, sending it farther than it could go with a real warhead.

“North Korea is bluffing,” said Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University near Seoul, the South Korean capital.

Kim Dong-yub, a defense analyst at the Seoul-based Institute for Far Eastern Studies, doubted that the North would consider a freeze until it had test-launched an ICBM on a normal trajectory over the Pacific and proved an atmospheric re-entry technology.

“Its announcement today is likely for domestic propaganda,” Mr. Kim said. “It will continue in its own way to solve its technical problems in its missile program.”

Kim Jong-un has boasted in recent months that his country was in the “final” stage of achieving full ICBM capabilities. Shin Beom-chul, a security expert at the government-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul, said the North needed to announce it had done so before the end of the year. “What North Korea announced today was not a technical but a political pronouncement,” he said.

Even if the North were open to discussing a freeze, there has been no indication that the United States and its allies would respond positively. Washington insists on a “complete, verifiable and irrevocable dismantlement” of the North’s nuclear arsenal.

China, which expressed “grave concern and opposition” over the latest launch, has continued to push for talks about a freeze. President Xi Jinping sent a special envoy to Pyongyang this month to urge Mr. Kim to consider it. But Mr. Kim did not even meet with him, and he further insulted Beijing by conducting its latest missile test only days after the envoy’s departure.

Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said the North had everything to gain at this point by provoking China and the United States.

“Now, in the wake of an apparent ICBM test with the longest range to date, voices calling for relaxing sanctions — since, it will be claimed, sanctions don’t work — and returning to dialogue without preconditions will grow louder,” Mr. Lee said. “For Pyongyang, the way to get sanctions lifted is not through making concessions, but resorting to further escalation.”

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