North Korea will suspend all nuclear and missile tests and shut down a major nuclear test site with immediate effect and instead pursue economic growth, North Korea’s state media reported Saturday, explicitly signaling a shift in its pursuit of a nuclear weapons program.
The North does have a history of pledging to halt the development of nuclear weapons only to renege on it, but the latest announcement shows its strong willingness to denuclearize and paves the way for resolving the decades-old nuclear crisis, experts here said Saturday.
Such a decision was also necessary for North Korea‘s leader Kim Jong-un to justify holding talks with the US, which the country has long reviled as an enemy, to its own people, and giving up its nuclear weapons program, the experts noted. North has used the US’ “hostilities” against the North as the reason for its nuclear weapons program.
Kim said during Friday’s plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea that his country no longer needed to conduct nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile tests because it had already completed the goal of developing nuclear weapons, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Saturday.
“We will discontinue nuclear test and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire from April 21,” KCNA reported, citing the result of the plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
It was the first direct expression of Kim‘s position on his country’s nuclear weapons program ahead of planned summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in next week and with US President Donald Trump in late May or early June.
“The northern nuclear test ground of the DPRK will be dismantled to transparently guarantee the discontinuance of the nuclear test,” it said.
North Korea has conducted all of its six nuclear tests – the latest and the most powerful one conducted in September last year -- at the Punggye-ri test site in North Hamgyong Province since 2006.
“Suspension of nuclear and missile tests and shutdown of the major nuclear site are a remarkable measure aimed at sending the message that it is really willing to denuclearize,” Hong Min, director of the North Korean studies division at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
“The North also needed to establish a logic to persuade its own people before it discards its nuclear weapons program,” he said. “That‘s why it did not specifically mention ’denuclearization‘ in the statement.”
Moon also said on Thursday North Korea had expressed a willingness to “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula and did not attach any conditions that the US cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of US forces stationed in South Korea.
It also may mark an end of the “byungjin” policy of pursuing the parallel development of nuclear weapons and its economy. The North adopted the policy at the ruling party’s meeting in March 2013.
“North Korea is virtually declaring an end to its ’Byungjin‘ policy and introducing a new strategy of focusing all its efforts on boosting its economy,” Hong said.
After the historic tasks of simultaneously developing the two fronts were successfully carried out, the young leader said that it is “the strategic line of the Workers‘ Party of Korea to concentrate all efforts of the whole party and country on the socialist economic construction.”
“We will concentrate all efforts on building a powerful socialist economy and markedly improving the standard of people’s living through the mobilization of all human and material resources of the country,” KCNA said.
Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Far East Institute, said that the North now seeks to bolster its economy to appeal to its own people – a key to regime survival -- after having declared itself a nuclear weapons state last year.
“The core of the statement is a shift of his focus to the economy,” he said. “North Korea would want to say it only wants to focus on boosting its economy without a nuclear weapons program, but it seems that it is premature for the North to say it out loud.”
“The North’s decision is an official declaration of a moratorium on its nuclear and missile activities,” he said. “It also means that the North will behave responsibly in the international regime such as a return to the NPT regime and allowing IAEA inspections.”
North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in January 2003, which it claimed also freed the country from International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
While many experts agreed that the North’s decision raised the prospects of a successful outcome from the upcoming inter-Korean summit and the North Korea-US summit, some analysts cautioned that it was too early to tell if the North is saying it is willing to denuclearize in complete, verifiable and irreversible manner as demanded by the US and South Korea.
“The change in its internal policy is clear. But it did not mention that it would discard the nuclear weapons program it has already developed. We cannot see the North‘s decision as a determination to completely denuclearize,” said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the National Korea Diplomatic Academy.
“It is also unclear whether it would dismantle its nuclear arsenal or whether it would continue to possess nuclear weapons while boosting the economy,” he said.
Victor Cha, who served as Asian affairs director on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, warned against too much optimism, tweeting, “Inflated expectations are worst thing for North Korea-South Korea sumit, and the US-North Korea summit.”
The North’s announcement came amid fast-developing rapprochement between the two Koreas and just before the leaders of the two sides are set to hold what will be the third inter-Korean summit on April 27 at the South Korean side of Panmunjeom.
A telephone hotline was set up between Moon and Kim on Friday and the leaders are scheduled to have a phone call before they sit down for face-to-face talks.
North Korea’s denuclearization is expected to top the summit agenda. The Koreas are discussing officially declaring an end to the 1950-1953 Korean War and signing a peace deal, the presidential office said. The war ended in an armistice, leaving the Koreas technically at war.
Trump welcomed the North’s announcement, saying “This is very good news for North Korea and the World - big progress! Look forward to our Summit” in his Tweet.
The Kim Jong-un regime spent much of last year carrying out nuclear and missile provocations, which escalated hostilities between Pyongyang and Washington. The situation on the peninsula took a dramatic turn in January, following Kim’s New Year’s address, in which he offered to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and improve inter-Korean ties.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com