North Korean leader Kim Jong-un looks at a rocket warhead tip after a simulated test of atmospheric re-entry of a ballistic missile, at an unidentified location in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

A Russian analyst says his recent interviews with Pyongyang’s senior foreign policy officials and experts indicate there’s still a chance that diplomacy can head off a conflict over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“The latest (visibly premature) declarations by Pyongyang that it has completed its nuclear force signal its readiness for dialogue. Taking advantage of this fleeting opportunity requires stronger leadership from the United States and more effective cooperation among the other key stakeholders,” Georgy Toloraya, the Director of Korean Programs at the Institute of Economy at the Russian Academy of Science, said in an article posted on 38 North, a respected website on North Korean affairs.

Toloraya’s assessment follows US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s offer earlier this week to begin unconditional negotiations with Pyongyang. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also declared at a meeting on Tuesday that his country’s nuclear program is now “complete.”

In his discussions, Toloraya noted that North Korean officials reiterated their standard policy goals of reaching “strategic parity” with the US by creating a credible nuclear deterrent and compelling opponents to conclude a peace treaty with the North. They also want the US and its allies “to recognize the sovereignty and independence of the DPRK, and provide security guarantees to enable the country’s further economic development,” the analyst said.

Denuclearization possible

“All of this is pretty standard fare,” Toloraya went on to say, “but when I asked if denuclearization would be possible if the US ended its “hostile policy,” the North Koreans admitted that they are not, in principle, against a “nuclear-free zone” in and around Korea. They stressed that before the early 2000s, their country was the only one in Northeast Asia to not possess or deploy nuclear weapons, and upon achieving nuclear parity with other parties, the balanced reduction and eventual denuclearization of the whole area is not impossible.”

Toloraya says all this could create the “framework of a possible dialogue” between Washington and Pyongyang.

“At the end of the day, a nuclear but peaceful Korean peninsula would be a better outcome than a war-torn Northeast Asia,” the analyst said. “The need to admit the failure of US policy toward North Korea’s nuclear program may be hard to swallow, but it is needed to formulate more realistic policy choices (including, unfortunately, living side by side with a nuclear North Korea). Only American leadership can avoid war and lead toward a diplomatic resolution.”

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