North Korean leader Kim Jong-un yesterday said he would halt nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches, an announcement welcomed by US President Donald Trump ahead of a much-anticipated summit between the two men.
Pyongyang’s declaration, long sought by Washington, is likely to be seen as a crucial step in the fast diplomatic dance on and around the Korean Peninsula.
It came less than one week before the North Korean leader meets South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a summit in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula, ahead of the eagerly awaited encounter with Trump.
Photo: EPA-EFE / Korean Central News Agency
However, Kim gave no indication Pyongyang might be willing to give up its nuclear weapons, or the missiles with which it can reach the mainland US.
The North has successfully developed its arsenal, including miniaturizing warheads to fit them onto missiles, so “no nuclear tests and intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket test-fires are necessary for the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] now,” Kim said.
As such, the North’s nuclear testing site was no longer needed, he told the ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
The party decided that nuclear blasts and ICBM launches would cease as of yesterday and an atomic test site at Punggye-ri is to be dismantled to “transparently guarantee” the end of testing, the state-run agency said.
Within minutes of the report being issued, Trump said on Twitter: “This is very good news for North Korea and the World — big progress! Look forward to our Summit.”
Seoul also welcomed the announcement, calling it “meaningful progress” toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
However, Kim offered no sign he might be willing to give up what he called the North’s “treasured sword,” saying its possession of nuclear weapons was “the firm guarantee by which our descendants can enjoy the most dignified and happiest life in the world.”
Pyongyang has made rapid technological progress in its weapons programs under Kim that has seen it subjected to increasingly strict sanctions by the UN Security Council, the US, the EU, South Korea and others.
Last year it carried out its sixth nuclear blast, by far its most powerful to date, while Kim and Trump traded threats of war and personal insults as tensions ramped up.
Even when there was an extended pause in testing, US officials said that it could not be interpreted as a halt without an explicit statement from Pyongyang.
South Korean envoys have previously cited Kim as promising no more tests, but yesterday’s report is the first such announcement directly by Pyongyang.
Analysts warned that the declaration was promising, but limited.
“Certainly this is a positive development,” said Daniel Pinkston of Troy University. “It’s a necessary but not sufficient step in North Korea returning to its past nonproliferation commitments.”
“I don’t see how North Korean statement constitutes a step toward denuclearisation. It is a moratorium on testing, but recommits North Korea to nuclear weapons status,” Christopher Green of the International Crisis Group said on Twitter.
Japan gave a mixed response, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offering a cautious welcome, while his defense minister said that North Korea did not mention the short or medium-range missiles that put Tokyo within reach.
Beijing said it believed the move would “help to promote the process of denuclearization and attempts to find a political settlement” on the peninsula.
The EU welcomed Kim’s announcement as “a positive, long-sought-after step” on the path to complete denuclearization.
The formal declaration of an end to testing came after Kim reiterated the North’s nuclear status in his New Year speech and said he had a nuclear button on his desk — prompting Trump to tweet that he had a bigger one of his own.
Events have moved rapidly since then, catalyzed by the Winter Olympics in the South, and Seoul is now pushing for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, raising hopes that a settlement can finally be reached on the peninsula.
However, there is a long way to go, with Moon this week saying that the “devil is in the details.”
The US is seeking the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the North, while Moon has said that Pyongyang wants security guarantees, potentially leaving much space for disagreement.
The North has long demanded the withdrawal of US troops from the peninsula and an end to its nuclear umbrella over South Korea, something unthinkable in Washington.
However, Kim told the Workers’ Party meeting: “A fresh climate of detente and peace is being created on the Korean Peninsula and the region, and dramatic changes are being made in the international political landscape.”
The impoverished North has pursued a byungjin policy of “simultaneous development” of both the military and the economy.
However, Kim said that as it was now a powerful state, “the whole party and country” should concentrate on “socialist economic construction.”
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