UNITED NATIONS — As President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un stand on the brink of a widely expected Summit No. 2 to unstick deadlocked nuclear diplomacy, a crucial but often overlooked question looms: Is North Korea actually a nuclear power?
Kim and his well-amplified propaganda specialists certainly say it is. And most casual observers, after watching last year's run of increasingly powerful weapons tests, would probably agree.
But Washington has always refused to accept that as fact. It is wary that doing so would allow Pyongyang to follow the path of India and Pakistan and a handful of other outliers who have built illicit nuclear programs outside the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which aims to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president whose tireless shuttle diplomacy has made Trump-Kim Part II possible, is working this week to explain the results of his own recent summit with Kim to Trump and other world leaders gathered at U.N. General Assembly meetings.
At the same time, the debate over whether to treat North Korea as a de facto nuclear power could influence whether fragile diplomacy continues or Northeast Asia returns to the threats of nuclear strikes that had many fearing war just last year.
The AP takes a look:
The technical state of North Korea's closely guarded nuclear program is unclear, but experts believe that Pyongyang can probably arm its short and midrange missiles with nuclear warheads. However, its ability to accurately fire longer range nuclear missiles at targets on the U.S. mainland — the benchmark for any viable nuclear arsenal — is probably not perfected.
Despite the uncertainties, some argue, North Korea is a nuclear power that will never relinquish its bombs.
These experts say Kim has studied the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and watched the fate of late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, who was lauded by U.S. officials for giving up his nuclear development program in 2003 before being killed in 2011 during a revolution. They say the North will never relinquish the weapons that are the only way to make sure the Kim family dynasty lives on.
Kim "presumes that no great power would risk attacking a nuclear state or sticking a hand into its internal strife," according to Andrei Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Kookmin University in Seoul.
"And so North Korean leaders are determined to stick to their nuclear development, and see nuclear weapons as the major guarantee of their security. There is no form of pressure that can convince them to budge on this, no promise that will seduce them into compliance. They believe that without nuclear weapons, they are as good as dead."
Accepting North Korea for what it is could then allow negotiators to push for a freeze or a scale-back or a permanent test ban.
But the old dream that had guided so many U.S. negotiators intent on getting the North to abandon all its nukes? Not going to happen, at least not in the current scenario.
"It is possible to manage the nuclear program and put some cap on its further development, provided the Kim family still feels it has the deterrent value it needs," Lankov wrote, though he added that North Korea "will expect generous concessions for any freeze, and might not stick to it even then."
At the next expected summit between Trump and Kim, they'll likely focus on North Korea's demand for a declaration formally ending the Korean War, which still technically continues. Washington wants Pyongyang to list the contents of its nuclear program — widely seen as the first step in showing a true willingness to disarm — before the Korean War declaration.
Even within the Trump administration, however, there's "a profoundly skeptical view of the possibility of achieving 'final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,'" the stated U.S. goal. That's what Daniel Sneider, a specialist in international policy at Stanford University who recently met with senior administration officials dealing with North Korea, wrote last month.
"The only possible exception," he wrote, "is the president himself."
Washington has always refused to give North Korea the title of nuclear power. Any diplomacy, multiple U.S. administrations have said, must have as its endgame the total abandonment of all North Korean bombs. That means treating the North's nuclear program as temporary, not permanent.
Trump should declare that Washington won't sign a peace treaty with a nuclear-armed North Korea and won't support an end of Korean War declaration until Pyongyang takes significant disarmament steps, according to Evans Revere, a former State Department Asia specialist.
"The president should state publicly that the U.S. goal is and will remain nothing less than the end of North Korea's nuclear weapons program," Revere wrote, and not fall into North Korea's trap of trying to "draw Washington into an endless arms control negotiation, thereby legitimizing Pyongyang's possession of nuclear weapons."
North Korea's acceptance as a nuclear state could also rattle the decades-long Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty and trigger a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia by leading many in Seoul and Tokyo to question the American guarantee to protect its allies.
South Korea may find it politically impossible to accept North Korea as a nuclear state after decades of animosity and occasional bloodshed, said Cheon Seong-whun, a presidential secretary during Seoul's previous conservative government.
If the current round of nuclear diplomacy derails, Seoul and Washington must develop strategies to manage the threat while pursuing denuclearization as a long-term goal, Cheon said.
Those include strengthened sanctions and stronger South Korean efforts to undermine Kim’s leadership, such as increasing the North Korean people’s access to outside information.
The allies should also consider bringing back the tactical nuclear weapons that the United States withdrew from South Korea in the 1990s to increase pressure on the North and create conditions for mutual nuclear disarmament, Cheon said.
"South Korea can't wage a war with North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons. It can't surrender its statehood to the North either," Cheon said. "We will have to learn to confront and manage the threat of North Korea's nuclear weapons over a long period of time."
Foster Klug, AP’s bureau chief for South Korea, has covered the Koreas since 2005. AP writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report from Seoul.
AP writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report from Seoul.