North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently indicated the road to denuclearization has come to an end, but experts say he left a door open for diplomacy with the U.S. in his statements Wednesday.
"Kim Jong Un's speech suggests that the DPRK [North Korea] is no longer interested in holding out the possibility of even an illusory commitment to denuclearization," said Evans Revere, a former State Department official during the George W. Bush administration, which also negotiated with North Korea.
Kim said, "If the U.S. persists in its hostile policy toward the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and the DPRK will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state."
Revere said Kim's stance on denuclearization was "the latest manifestation" of what North Korea has been saying for years.
Earlier in December, North Korea's U.N. ambassador, Kim Song, said denuclearization was off the table.
Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said, "Kim is setting the stage for a strategic choice to be a full-fledged nuclear state, which is Pyongyang's longtime goal, 40 years in the works, and then blame the U.S. for its hostile policy.”
Manning said North Korea might continue "the facade of diplomacy" while perfecting its missiles and nuclear arsenal and that denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang were unlikely to make progress.
"At this point, after 25 years of diplomatic efforts, it is delusional to keep saying there is one last chance,'" Manning said. "I see no evidence Kim has any intention of dismantling his nuclear weapons program."
North Korea promised it would denuclearize in hopes of obtaining sanctions relief at the start of talks with the U.S. in 2018. At the failed Hanoi summit held in February 2019, Kim proposed partial denuclearization in exchange for eliminating sanctions.
President Donald Trump rejected the offer in Hanoi, and Pyongyang has responded with multiple missile launches since May in what many observers see as an effort to pressure the U.S. to soften its stance.
Now, Kim is signaling he no longer hopes to obtain sanctions relief from the U.S.
Even so, Bruce Klingner, former CIA deputy division chief of Korea and current senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Kim was clinging to hopes that sanctions would disappear.
Klingner said Kim "left the door to negotiations open the tiniest of cracks" by stating that North Korea's denuclearization and weapons development were "contingent on a dramatically altered U.S. policy."
North Korea views internationally imposed sanctions as hostile acts. It also views joint military drills the U.S. holds annually with South Korea as a threat. Kim voiced opposition to both sanctions and joint exercises in his statements.
"Under such conditions" of continued joint drills and sanctions, Kim said, North Korea will drop a self-imposed moratorium placed on its nuclear and long-range missiles.
"There is no ground for us to get unilaterally bound to the commitment any longer," Kim said.
Klingner expects North Korea will continue to take provocative actions in hopes of extracting concessions from the U.S.
"Pyongyang will go up the escalation ladder, either incrementally or immediately, but in a manner to maximize impact and diplomatic leverage," he said. "The Trump administration should ratchet up pressure on North Korea and foreign enablers of its prohibited nuclear and missile programs."