Next year will be the most opportune time for North Korea to bolster its nuclear program because of upcoming leadership changes in the United States and South Korea, according to a senior North Korean official who defected recently to the South.
"With South Korea holding presidential elections and the U.S. undergoing an administration transition, the North sees 2017 as the prime time for nuclear development," said Thae Yong-ho, who was North Korea's second highest ranking diplomat in London.
Thae defected to South Korea in August, becoming the most senior North Korean official to defect in almost 20 years.
At a news conference Tuesday with South Korean reporters, Thae made clear he was not aware of the status of North Korea's nuclear program but expressed confidence that China would not severely discipline North Korea for its nuclear program because the North's disintegration could produce a combined U.S.-friendly Korea.
Thae said North Korean leader Kim Jung Un has no plans to relinquish his country's nuclear weapons even if he is offered large sums of money. The exiled diplomat said Kim is expediting the country's nuclear development program with the intent of possessing nuclear weapons by the end of next year.
North Korea conducted two nuclear tests this year and fired over 20 ballistic missiles. And it publicly promised to develop the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon.
President-elect Donald Trump has said he favors the manufacture of nuclear weapons by Japan and South Korea as a deterrent to North Korea, a position that prompted a sharp response from the administration of President Barack Obama, which has supported a decades-old policy of nonproliferation.
Donald Trump will assume control of the executive branch of the U.S. government on January 20 and South Korea will hold a presidential election next year. Thae predicted North Korea will attempt to open dialog with the two new administrations in an attempt to obtain nuclear power status. In the meantime, Thae said, North Korea will continue to conduct nuclear tests in an effort to discourage South Korea's and Washington's sanctions-oriented policy toward North Korea.
U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said in October that convincing North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons is futile.
"They are under siege and they are very paranoid. So the notion of giving up their nuclear capability, whatever it is, is a nonstarter with them," Clapper said in a speech before the Council of Foreign Relations.