SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Seoul's Unification Minister said on Wednesday (Oct 18) that it is highly unlikely that North Korea will relinquish its nuclear weapons, as it nears the completion of its weapons programme.
"The possibility that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons is extremely low," Unification Minister Cho Myoung Gyon said at a forum hosted by the Chinese Embassy in Seoul on Wednesday.
"I used the term 'extremely low' to express it on a softer note. It would not be incorrect to say there is actually almost no chance that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons because it views it as its lifeline," he added, indicating that Pyongyang's nuclear programme is not a mere bargaining chip for its leader Kim Jong Un.
"Experts expect (its nuclear weapons programme to be completed) in two years. There is a possibility that (the North) might reach their goal next year," Mr Cho said.
The minister's statement comes amid the international community's mounting efforts to get Pyongyang back to dialogue for denuclearisation.
On Sept 3, North Korea conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test, which triggered a series of international sanctions aimed to cripple the rogue regime's economic and diplomatic power. It also sparked global concerns of the North drawing increasingly closer to becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapons state, as its state media claimed success in producing intercontinental ballistic missiles fitted with thermonuclear warheads.
Closely following the test, South Korea's Defence Minister Song Young Moo said the military suspects the North may have secured technology to produce miniaturised nuclear warheads that weigh less than 500kg. The weight of the warhead determines the missile range, which is considered a key to hitting the US mainland.
The biggest challenge North Korea currently faces with its nuclear weapons programme is believed to be securing stable re-entry technology, which allows a missile to survive the heat-intensive process of re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.
Pyongyang has been showing signs and expressing its will to continue its decadeslong nuclear ambition.
North Korea would never agree to any sort of nuclear agreement with Washington, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told Russia's state-run media Tass earlier this month.
"North Korea has nearly achieved the final point on the way to our ultimate goal, to achieving a real balance of force with the United States," Mr Ri told Tass.
"Our nuclear weapons will never be a subject matter of negotiations as long as the United States' policy of pressure on (North Korea) has not been uprooted once and for all," he said.
In September, Mr Ri had previously told the media that a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific Ocean could be carried out.
Mr Kim has seemingly reduced public appearances by around a quarter so far this year, with half of them focused on military inspections and affairs, according to data released on Wednesday by Seoul's Unification Ministry.
According to the data, Mr Kim attended a total of 75 inspections between Jan 1 and Tuesday, which is a 24.2 per cent decrease year-on-year. Military-related visits accounted for 49 per cent of the total.
To bring about North Korea's denuclearisation, Mr Cho said that is crucial to create an environment that could bring the regime to the dialogue table.
"An economic approach (to create an environment for denuclearisation) is necessary," he said. "This means an economic approach while upholding the United Nations Security Council Resolutions and working within its frame."
The minister also said that the effect of the sanctions alone would be insufficient to push the North towards denuclearisation, saying that Mr Kim would not abandon the country's weapons programme on the risk of a regime collapse.
Mr Cho's remarks echo those of Russian President Vladimir Putin in September that the sanctions against the North are "useless and ineffective", as North Korea would rather "eat grass" than give up its nuclear programme "if they don't feel safe".
Mr Cho also ruled out the possibility of deploying tactical nuclear weapons and military options. The former could officially acknowledge the North as a nuclear weapons state, while the latter could bring about "a devastating result".
Meanwhile, a US think tank said on Tuesday that North Korea's underground nuclear testing at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site is likely to continue, despite speculations that the site may no longer be suitable for such experiments.
"The (recent series of) three earthquakes were likely induced by the 250 kiloton nuclear test," a report by 38 North, a blog run by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said.
"However, US nuclear test history at the Nevada Test Site provides evidence that such post-test tremors are not unusual. (With evidence of yet unused tunnel complexes) within the test site…there is no valid reason to assume that the Punggye-ri test site is unable to contain additional underground nuclear tests," it said.