Weeks before a second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the top US military commander for Asia has echoed an intelligence assessment that North Korea is unlikely to give up all its nuclear weapons.
Although he expressed optimism about the February 27-28 Hanoi summit in verbal testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Philip Davidson, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, expressed doubts about North Korean intentions.
"USINDOPACOM's assessment on North Korean denuclearisation 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 denuclearisation in exchange for US and international concessions," he said.
Last month, US 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 denuclearise.
Trump has been eager for a second summit with Kim even though their first meeting in Singapore in June produced only vague commitments from Kim and little concrete progress since.
While Trump has cited North Korea halting its nuclear testing and no new missile launches in 15 months as proof of progress, a report by UN sanctions monitors has also cast doubt on Pyongyang's intentions.
Pyongyang "is using civilian facilities, including airports, for ballistic missile assembly and testing with the goal of effectively preventing 'decapitation' strikes" on a smaller number of identified nuclear and missile assembly and manufacturing sites," the UN report said.
Davidson said tensions with North Korea had declined since it halted nuclear and missile testing in 2017 and that it had taken some denuclearisation steps, most notably the destruction of tunnels at its nuclear test site.
However, he said that action was reversible and added: "Much needs to be done to make meaningful progress."
Davidson also noted that North Korea had demanded "corresponding" US steps 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 in Singapore to work toward denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and in September expressed willingness to permanently dismantle facilities at his country's main nuclear site of Yongbyon - in return for corresponding US moves.
In talks with the US, North Korea has been seeking a lifting of punishing US-led sanctions, a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, and security guarantees.
A Stanford University study released on Tuesday said North Korea had continued to produce bomb fuel while in 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.