WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Weeks before a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the top U.S. military commander for Asia on Tuesday echoed an intelligence assessment that North Korea is unlikely to give up all its nuclear weapons.
Although he expressed optimism about the Feb. 27-28 summit in verbal testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Philip Davidson, head of the Indo-Pacific Command, expressed doubts about North Korean intentions in his written submission to the panel.
“USINDOPACOM’s assessment on North Korean denuclearization is consistent with the Intelligence Community position. That is, we think it is unlikely that North Korea will give up all of its nuclear weapons or production capabilities, but seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization in exchange for U.S. and international concessions,” he said.
Last month, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told Congress he believed it was unlikely North Korea would give up all its nuclear weapons and that it had continued activity inconsistent with pledges to denuclearize.
Trump has been eager to hold a second summit with Kim even though their first meeting in Singapore in June produced only vague commitments from the North Koreans and little concrete progress since.
The White House declined comment on Davidson’s remarks.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said it remained confident the Singapore summit commitments would be fulfilled, and added: “It is Chairman Kim’s commitment to denuclearization upon which the world is focused.”
Trump and Kim’s next meeting is set to be held in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi.
Davidson said tensions with North Korea had declined since it halted nuclear and missile testing in 2017 and that it had taken some denuclearization steps, most notably the destruction of tunnels at it nuclear test site.
However, he said that action was reversible. “Much needs to be done to make meaningful progress,” he added.
Davidson also noted that North Korea had demanded “corresponding measures” from the United States and that Kim had warned in a New Year speech of a potential “new path,” which could indicate an eventual return to weapons testing, if he was not satisfied with the negotiations.
Kim pledged at the first summit to work toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. In September, Kim expressed willingness to take steps, including the permanent dismantlement of nuclear facilities at his country’s main nuclear site of Yongbyon, in return for corresponding U.S. moves.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun held three days of talks in Pyongyang last week to prepare for the second summit, which he said would include discussion of corresponding steps North Korea has demanded.
Trump described those talks as “very productive” but the State Department has offered no sign of progress and Biegun and his counterpart have agreed to meet again before the summit.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit to Slovakia on Tuesday he hoped “substantial progress” would be made in Hanoi.
“The pillars that were agreed to back in Singapore in June, I hope we make progress along each one: security and peace on the peninsula, the denuclearization in the peninsula, as well as ensuring that we create the conditions for a brighter future for the North Korean people,” Pompeo said.
In its talks with the United States, North Korea has been seeking a lifting of punishing U.S.-led sanctions, a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, and security guarantees.
A Stanford University study released earlier on Tuesday said North Korea had continued to produce bomb fuel while in denuclearization talks with the United States and may have produced enough in the past year to add as many as seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal.
However, it said the country’s freeze in nuclear and missile testing since 2017 mean that North Korea’s weapons program probably poses less of a threat than it did at the end of that year.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot