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N Korea at crossroads

Kim's silence on existing nuclear weapons clouds US talks

Pyongyang withholds detailed inventory of assets as Vietnam summit nears

SEOUL -- North Korean and American diplomats appear to have held a second day of working talks in Pyongyang Thursday, laying groundwork for an upcoming leadership summit, but the North's steadfast refusal to disclose details of its nuclear assets is raising concerns about its commitment to the goal of denuclearization.

The U.S. special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, arrived in Pyongyang Wednesday for talks focused on concrete steps toward denuclearizing the North, paving the way for U.S. President Donald Trump to meet Northern leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam Feb. 27 and 28. But eight months on from the two leaders' first summit in Singapore, it is clear that Kim remains attached to his atomic arsenal.

Kim has promised both Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, with whom Kim has met three times, that the North is willing to denuclearize.

Kim's two predecessors, his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung, advanced the North's nuclear program to solidify their authoritarian regime and gain the upper hand in negotiating with America. The fact that Kim Jong Un has shifted his focus to economic development and gone so far as to meet the president of the U.S., a longtime enemy, stirred hopes in the international community that the reclusive country was headed for a change.

But Pyongyang continues to refuse Washington's requests that it produce a list accounting for the full picture of its nuclear facilities and plans. With that information hidden, the two sides have been unable to draw a path to denuclearization. Optimism for disarmament has ebbed as the North continues to insist on "step-by-step and simultaneous action," demanding concessions from Washington in return.

The North has taken some concrete actions. In a New Year speech, Kim said the country would "neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them" and had taken "various practical measures" toward that end. Last May, the country blew up its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, and Kim has signaled willingness to demolish the Tongchang-ri missile engine testing site and permanently dismantle the Yongbyon facilities that form the heart of the nuclear program.

Those sites, however, represent just a portion of the North's nuclear facilities, and destroying them would fall far short of the disarmament the international community wants. Moreover, Pyongyang has demanded "corresponding measures" from the U.S. as a condition for action. Some parties, including the Japanese government and conservative factions in South Korea, have noted that Kim has not committed to destroying the North's existing nuclear stockpile.

Seoul estimates that the North has between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons, along with 50kg of weaponizable plutonium and a large stock of highly enriched uranium, enough to make a number of warheads. Pyongyang is also said to be closing in on perfecting technology to miniaturize warheads to mount on ballistic missiles, though whether they could survive reentering the atmosphere once launched remains unproven.

Diplomatic sources and experts say the North aims to make its status as a nuclear power a fait accompli. In his New Year speech, Kim said that if the U.S. "persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our republic, we may be compelled to find a new way" to defend the North's interests, possibly hinting that it could pursue nuclear development once more.

Reports of newly built or discovered nuclear facilities in the North have also deepened suspicions about the sincerity of its offers to disarm. In a January report, the Center for Strategic and International studies, a U.S. think tank, said a previously undisclosed site north of Pyongyang was home to a number of Nodong-1 medium-range ballistic missiles. An expert panel under the United Nations Security Council's North Korea sanctions committee has also found signs of continuing development.

Even some in Washington believe that, as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told lawmakers in late January, North Korea is "unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities." It is unclear whether such doubts can be dispelled in the three weeks before a summit where Trump will face pressure to get results.

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