Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said Thursday he does not believe North Korea will abandon its nuclear weapons in exchange for a suspension of U.S. joint military exercises with South Korea.
Kissinger, who served under the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the 1970s, spoke before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the security challenges facing the United States.
"The most immediate challenge to international peace and security is posed by North Korea," he said in his opening statement, posted on the committee's website. "Paradoxically, it is only after Pyongyang has achieved nuclear and intercontinental missile breakthroughs, accompanied by threatening assertions and demonstrations, that measures to thwart these activities have begun to be applied."
Kissinger acknowledged some success in the Donald Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign to curb the North's nuclear ambitions, but added there has been no breakthrough.
"North Korea acquired nuclear weapons to assure its regime's survival; in its view, to give them up would be tantamount to suicide," he said. "An outcome that was widely considered unacceptable is now on the verge of becoming irreversible."
Kissinger called for an agreement on Korea's future through the revival of the now-stalled six-party talks or with backing from the U.S. and China. That, he said, would be the best road to the denuclearization of the peninsula.
A "freeze-for-freeze" under which the U.S. and South Korea would suspend their regular military exercises in exchange for the North halting its nuclear and ballistic missile testing "will not ... fulfill this purpose or even advance it."
"That would equate legitimate security operations with activities which have been condemned by the U.N. Security Council for decades," he said. "And it would encourage demands for additional restraints on, and perhaps the dismantling of, America's alliances in the region."
A freeze, pushed by China and Russia, would also give legitimacy to North Korea's nuclear establishment and results of its previous tests.
"Interim steps towards full denuclearization may well be part of an eventual negotiation," Kissinger said. "But they need to be steps towards this ultimate goal: the dismantlement of Pyongyang's existing arsenal."
The mistake of past negotiations, which only helped North Korea buy time to advance its weapons development, must not be repeated, he added.
In his actual remarks before the committee, Kissinger also expressed concern about the potential proliferation of North Korean nuclear weapons.
"If North Korea still possesses a military nuclear capability, in some finite time," he said, "the impact on the proliferation of nuclear weapons might be fundamental because if North Korea could maintain its capability in the face of opposition by China and the United States and the disapproval of the rest of the men of the world, other countries will feel that this is the way for achieving an international prominence and the upper hand in international disputes."
The former statesman warned of the consequences of tolerating Pyongyang's nuclear armament.
"I think the denuclearization of North Korea must be a fundamental objective, and if it is not reached, we have to prepare ourselves for the proliferation of weapons to other countries, which will create a new pattern of international politics," he said.