TOKYO – Getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program has long been the holy grail of multilateral diplomacy with Pyongyang. So, now that the U.S. intelligence director has publicly stated that he thinks it's probably a "lost cause," how are North Korea's neighbors responding?
National Intelligence director James Clapper said Tuesday that the U.S. goal of persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons is probably a lost cause and the best hope is to cap its capability.
Bold and surprising as Clapper's words may be for a senior U.S. official, even in a private forum, it's what many experts around Asia have assumed, or feared, for quite a long time. And some are welcoming the candor as a step toward a more effective — and coordinated — regional approach.
A sampling of initial reactions:
At first thought, it would seem Seoul might be the first to react strongly to Clapper's seemingly pessimistic position and the potentially far-reaching policy implications it could have.
But it barely got a yawn in South Korea.
Seoul, like Washington, officially says it will never accept North Korea as a nuclear power. An unidentified government official told the Yonhap news agency that Seoul and Washington remain strongly committed to ending the North's nuclear program.
Truth is, Seoul has other things on its mind right now.
Despite the closeness of Seoul to the world's most heavily armed border and Pyongyang's many threats to annihilate its southern rival, many South Koreans simply don't worry much about what's happening with the North or the long-running, so-far futile efforts to rid it of its nuclear weapons.
That's especially true now, when a domestic political scandal at the highest levels is front-page news.
Stay tuned, however. Distracted or just jaded, South Korea has a big stake in the North's nuclear future.
Clapper wasn't big news in Japan, either, but for a different reason: To many Japanese observers, he was just stating the obvious.
"Experts and people are not surprised because the perception that North Korea would never give up its nuclear weapons is already widely accepted," said Narushige Michishita, a professor at Tokyo's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
But Michishita said it's a positive development that "the top U.S. intelligence official has made this realistic assessment."
"Now that he said that the best the U.S. could get is some kind of a cap on North Korea's nuclear capabilities, the new U.S. president can choose to set the freezing of nuclear weapons as a policy objective, which I believe has been the only realistic and achievable goal for a long time," Michishita said.
"Expecting sanctions to work effectively has always been unrealistic since China — North Korea's largest donor and trading partner — is not interested in North Korea's collapse," he said. "Unfortunately, we don't know whether a new approach, which will most likely be dialogue, will work."
If it doesn't, he said, "we can always come back to a tougher approach."
China has signed on to United Nations sanctions to punish the North for its nuclear tests and missile launches but has never really been on board with Washington's approach.
In response to a question about Clapper's comments, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that "only by negotiation and consultation can the peninsular nuclear issue be brought back to the track of settlement."
Some Chinese experts said Clapper's candor could create the leeway for such talks to move forward.
Shi Yuanhua, Korean studies professor at Shanghai's Fudan University, suggested that Clapper's remarks reflect a more realistic and flexible approach in Washington that could make it easier for Beijing to get behind joint efforts to bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un back to the negotiating table — though he agreed that won't necessarily mean any easy breakthroughs.
"In order for North Korea to give up its nuclear programs, the U.S. must offer a security guarantee," he said. "And that is what the U.S. doesn't want to negotiate."
Taking a different tack, Shen Dingli, the director of Fudan's Center for American Studies, said official acceptance of North Korea as a de facto nuclear state may bring U.S. policy toward North Korea closer into alignment with its approach toward other nuclear states such as India, Israel and Pakistan.
"Only by accepting North Korea as a nuclear country and letting it become a responsible country like China and India can relations between the U.S. and North Korea improve," Shen said.
Right now, however, that flies in the face of even Beijing's official policy — which opposes a nuclear armed North.
Associated Press writers Ken Moritsugu and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Foster Klug in Seoul, South Korea, and AP researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.