North Korea 2 to 3 years from missile that could hit US, Russia says

Russian Foreign Ministry's security and disarmament department head Mikhail Ulyanov (right) along with other attendees hold a briefing to present analysis of the report by UN investigators which blamed a sarin gas attack in Syria's Khan Sheikhun on Bashar al-Assad's regime, in Moscow on Nov 2, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (Bloomberg) - Russia said North Korea is still two to three years from being able to carry out a long-range strike on the US, offering diplomacy a chance to halt the secretive Communist state's nuclear and missile programmes.

"Unless we can find a political solution," it's "inevitable" that Kim Jong Un's regime will have intercontinental ballistic missiles within that time, Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's department for security affairs and disarmament, said in an interview in Moscow.

"We need to stop these programmes now, and sanctions will only work within four to five years." Russia will "never recognise North Korea" as a nuclear state, which puts Moscow and Washington in "close" positions, Ulyanov said.

Russia and China have urged a so-called "dual freeze" to ease the crisis, under which North Korea would suspend missile and nuclear tests "at least for a few months," and the U.S. and South Korea would halt joint manoeuvres to allow negotiations to restart, he said.

Washington has rejected the proposal, saying it equates North Korea's illegal tests with the legitimate drills carried out by the U.S. and South Korea.

The US wants to intensify pressure on North Korea through sanctions.

The crisis is likely to be on the agenda at possible talks between US President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin at this week's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, according to the Kremlin.

In a softening of his earlier harsh rhetoric toward North Korea, Trump said on Tuesday during a visit to South Korea that the regime in Pyongyang should "come to the table" and make a deal on its nuclear programme.

While Trump said he sees "certain movement" on the issue, he declined to comment on holding direct talks with North Korea and said the US is ready - "if need be" - to use the full range of its military capabilities.

North Korea says its weapons program is a deterrent against any attempted U.S. attack to try to topple the regime. It took the Russia-China proposal for a dual freeze into consideration without rejecting or accepting it, Ulyanov said in the interview conducted last week.

Tensions have ratcheted up since North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sept 3, detonating what it said was a hydrogen bomb that could be fitted to an ICBM.

It's test-fired ballistic missiles that Kim said put the entire U.S. at risk of a strike, and launched rockets twice that flew over Japan. Russian lawmakers who visited Pyongyang last month said they were told that North Korea is planning to test a missile that may be capable of reaching the U.S. West Coast.

Ulyanov also criticised the Trump administration for putting at risk the nuclear agreement with Iran, saying the pact was virtually doomed to collapse if the U.S. walks away from it. Trump last month disavowed the 2015 accord to curb Iran's nuclear program that was negotiated between Tehran and the U.S., Russia, France, Germany, the UK and China.

Trump accused the Islamic Republic of multiple violations of the agreement, though he stopped short of abandoning it completely. All of the other participants, as well as International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, say Iran is complying with the pact.

"We don't even want to discuss the likelihood of this deal's collapse, because it would be a virtual catastrophe," Ulyanov said.

Russia, along with China and the European powers, has rejected Trump's demand to renegotiate the pact to curb Iran's ballistic missile program. Iran currently has missiles with a range of around 3,000 km, which poses no threat to the US in the "foreseeable future," Ulyanov said.

While Russia, which is on good terms with Iran, opposes Tehran's missile development, it accepts the Islamic Republics's right to do so under international law, according to Ulyanov.

"We are not pleased with such advanced weaponry being developed near our borders," he said. "But we can't say 'don't you dare' to Iran."

The Trump administration needs more time to assign State Department officials in charge of issues relating to non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, the Russian diplomat said.

"Maybe there will be positive changes early next year," Ulyanov said.

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