On the surface, North Korea’s announcement on Saturday of the suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests provides a positive boost to the summit talks its leader Kim Jong-un will have with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump.
But the announcement, which included the voluntary shutdown of a nuclear test site, did not touch on existing nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles, predicting tough talks ahead on complete denuclearization.
The announcement, carried out by the North’s official news agency, said that it will discontinue nuclear and ICBM tests as of Saturday and will dismantle the nuclear test ground in Punggye-ri, where the North conducted all of its six tests from 2006 to last September.
It said the dismantling of the nuclear site is aimed to guarantee “transparency” of the discontinuance of nuclear tests. North Korea apparently tried to give political weight to the decision by making it in a plenary meeting of the central committee of the ruling Workers‘ Party which Kim presided over Friday.
The decision, coming one week ahead of Kim’s summit with Moon, should brighten prospects for the meeting scheduled for Friday, and the Kim-Trump talks to be held in late May or early June as well.
Cheong Wa Dae said in a statement that the North’s decision is meaningful progress for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and that it will contribute to creating a very positive environment for the success of the upcoming two summits.
Trump also said on Twitter that it was “very good news and big progress” for North Korea and the world and that he looks forward to the summit.
True, it is a good sign that the North took what should be one of the first steps toward denuclearization on its own ahead of the summit talks with Moon and Trump.
The latest development, however, should not give unguarded optimism. Most of all, neither Kim nor the party meeting report touched on denuclearization, which should include verification and dismantlement of existing nuclear stockpiles and related facilities.
Moreover, Kim made it clear that one reason he was putting a moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests was because his country has already completed the capability to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile and to develop delivery and strike means.
“The mission of the northern nuclear test ground has thus come to an end,” Kim was quoted as saying.
In other words, Kim was sending the message to the outside world that his country should be recognized as a country with nuclear-tipped ICBMs that can strike targets as far away as the US mainland.
The North Korean statement also said that it will neither use nuclear weapons nor transfer nukes or nuclear technology under any circumstances, unless there are nuclear threats or provocation against it. In other words, the North was saying that it would continue to possess nuclear weapons.
Based on such a position, the party meeting declared that the county would no longer promote the “byongjin” policy of pursuing both nuclear power and economic development and will now concentrate on constructing a socialist economy.
All in all, it seems that Kim wants to start negotiations with Moon and Trump on the premise that he is leader of a recognized nuclear state, which could maximize his position in negotiating the lifting of sanctions and economic reward in return for denuclearization.
This would pose tough challenges to both Moon and Trump, whose ultimate goal is achieving a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of all the nuclear devices in the North, and more importantly within a pre-set, shortest possible period of time.