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[SINGAPORE] North Korea will probably claim with credibility within four years that it can hit the US with a nuclear weapon, a potential time bomb for Donald Trump's re-election prospects, according to Christopher Hill, a former senior US diplomat who led talks with the reclusive regime.
The chance of multi-country negotiations resuming soon with North Korea is "pretty much nil," Mr Hill said on Saturday in an interview in Singapore. The former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who was ambassador to South Korea from 2004-2005, said Kim Jong Un was likely to keep improving his arsenal and the options for countering him were limited.
"Contrary to what many people have said, they are not testing the new administration, they are testing weapons of war," Mr Hill said.
"And sooner or later, but certainly within the next four years, within the first mandate of Trump, they will announce with credibility that they have a deliverable nuclear weapon."
"The problem for Trump is that would be an enormous difficulty for him in 2020 elections," said Mr Hill, now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
"Trump is not going to want to have to face the electorate having allowed North Korea to have a nuclear weapon targeted at the United States."
With Mr Kim claiming that his country is in the "last stage" of preparations to test-fire an inter-continental ballistic missile, the incoming US president could face a greater challenge than predecessor Barack Obama in dealing with the regime.
Mr Trump has already veered from calling Mr Kim a maniac to saying he could sit down with him to negotiate, raising questions over how exactly he plans to tackle the North Korean issue once in office.
Mr Kim has stared down years of international sanctions, continuing to test atomic bombs and the missiles that could carry a miniaturised warhead to the continental US Six-party talks involving South Korea, Russia, China and Japan aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its programme - a process in which Mr Hill played a key role - were formally abandoned by Pyongyang in 2009.
"The prospects for a resumption of talks in the near future are pretty much nil," Mr Hill said on the sidelines of a security forum. "I don't rule it out for the future, but certainly I think the prospects are not good."
"So it's all coming to a head. And the trouble with Trump is you can't really predict how he's going to react to things."
Predicting the Unpredictable
Mr Trump, a real-estate billionaire who authored "The Art of the Deal", said during his campaign he could negotiate directly with Mr Kim over a hamburger. But Mr Hill doubted the US would get any traction if it sought to switch to direct talks.
"We're predicting the unpredictable, but I just don't see President Trump saying 'well I am going to sit down with him and we'll work this out'," Mr Hill said. "Moreover even if such a thing were to happen, I don't see the North Koreans giving up their nuclear weapons right now."
With Mr Trump indicating he will be tougher on China by linking geopolitics to issues like trade - already he's castigated it for not doing more to prod its neighbour and ally - the prospect of greater international cooperation against Mr Kim is fading. China is North Korea's main trading partner and supplier of its energy and food supplies.
That said, Beijing's influence has waned after a period in which North Korea appeared to listen to China under former leader Kim Jong Il. China has also been reluctant to push too hard because of concerns it could lead to North Korea's total collapse.
While there is a tendency to overestimate China's leverage over the regime, "I don't think there is any kind of political solution to this without the participation of China," Mr Hill said.
But Mr Trump, he said, "in some respects seems to blame China as much as he blames North Korea."
"In any event, the Chinese relationship with North Korea is rather bad right now," he added.
"I think the Chinese worry a lot about North Korean collapse, and not just because of refugees. The collapse of a neighbouring historical ally is a bigger matter than refugees. It has to do with a loss of face in China, a sense that somehow it could somehow presage change in China."
South Korea may not be much help either. Amid a political crisis that has seen lawmakers vote to impeach President Park Geun-Hye, the next election - due either way by December - could usher in a government that is less keen on pressuring Mr Kim, Mr Hill said.
And Mr Kim currently appears secure as leader. Having purged many officials in recent years - including his own uncle, who was a conduit to China - "he seems to be strong," Mr Hill said.
"I don't put it outside the realm of possibility that there are people in North Korea who would like to get rid of him. But that's kind of more an expression of hope than of fact."
That leaves Mr Trump with few options. His only choice might be just to try to slow Mr Kim, Mr Hill said.
"The best we can do is somehow retard their programmme from a technical point of view," he said.
"If I am looking at a possible way forward, I think it would be something like that. I don't see the North Koreans saying 'they are going to obliterate us, we need to get rid of our nuclear weapons'."