North Korea says its quest for nuclear weapons is “complete” and it “no longer needs” to test its weapons capability, a significant development ahead of diplomatic engagement with both South Korea and the United States.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Saturday that “under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests, mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in northern area has also completed its mission,” as quoted by the state-run KCNA news agency.
The announcement appears to signify a remarkable change in policy for Kim, following a relentless pursuit of nuclear and ballistic weapons as a means to ensure his regime’s survival — although some analysts remain skeptical, either that the North Korean leader will keep his word, or that the move could simply be interpreted as the North drawing a line under the development phase of the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
It comes just one week before a meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and before a planned historic encounter between Kim and US President Donald Trump — and just weeks after the North Korean leader met Chinese President Xi Jinping on his first official trip outside his country.
The US and South Korea welcomed the news, which they said was a sign of progress and a promising start to upcoming talks.
“North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site,” Trump tweeted. “This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress! Look forward to our Summit.”
The US President followed up the tweet with another around four hours later, similarly praising the “progess” being made.
Seoul similarly praised the development, with South Korean Presidential Senior Secretary for Public Relations Yoon Young-chan telling journalists it represented “meaningful progress for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” and said that it would contribute to a “positive environment” for the upcoming talks.
The declaration comes as North Korea continues to make concessions ahead of the talks. Last month Kim told a South Korean delegation that he “understood” the need for joint US-South Korean military drills. Earlier this week he dropped his requirement that US troops leave the Korean peninsula as a precondition for denuclearization.
‘New chapter’ for North Korea
A North Korea source told CNN that Kim has finally decided to open up a new chapter for his nation. Kim has committed himself to the path of denuclearization and will now focus solely on economic growth and improving the national economy, the source said.
The North Korean leader has realized the best path forward is to normalize relations with other countries, the source added. He is finally being recognized by the international community, and this is a historic, timely opportunity, the source said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cautiously welcomed the development. “The only thing that is important is whether or not it will lead to the completely verified and irreversible abolition of nuclear and missiles,” he told reporters. “We would like to keep a close eye on it.”
His Defense Minister, Itsunori Onodera, went one step further, saying that the suspension of nuclear and missile tests was “insufficient” and “not satisfactory,” as it did not mention Pyongyang’s short- and mid-range capabilitiies — the missiles that can reach Japan.
Beijing welcomed the news and pledged to play a “positive” role in bringing lasting peace to the peninsula.
“Achieving denuclearization and sustainable peace in the region is in the interest of people on the peninsula and in the region, and meets the shared expectation of the international community,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.
“We hope all relevant parties will move in the same direction and take concrete actions to work toward sustainable peace and common development in the region. China will continue to play a positive role to this end.”
However, analysts stressed caution over Kim’s words, noting that Pyongyang was likely to be seeking something in return.
“The announcement is significant, but you know, whether North Korea is truly serious remains to be seen,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA North Korea analyst.
“They might be looking for freeze-for-freeze deals. They are looking for sanctions relief. So what are we going to give for this freezing of tests?”
Speaking to CNN, Josh Pollack, senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said that the news is Kim’s way of announcing that his country is a fully paid-up member of the nuclear club.
“They have wanted to be seen as an arrived nuclear power for a while and one thing that the other nuclear powers don’t do is test, with the exception of India and Pakistan, no one has done it since World War II, so it’s a sign of immaturity to test and they’re saying: ‘we’re technically mature now, so we don’t need to (test) anymore.'”
“They’re not giving anything up, they’re keeping (their weapons) and that’s the message. It was wrapped in this seeming concession, but it’s not really a concession. (If) they can decide to test after all they can just start doing it again.”
The change in North Korea’s policy was announced to its citizens via state news agency KCNA. It published a list of six points that emphasized the country had achieved its nuclear objectives.
- “We declare solemnly that we faithfully realized the nuclear weaponization” — The first point says the tests were carried out under its “byungjin” policy, a twofold strategy of investing in the economy and the nuclear program. Tests were carried out in sequential order to achieve the country’s aim.
- “The nuclear test site in northern area will be discarded” — KCNA said as of Saturday North Korea will no longer conduct nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile tests, and to “ensure transparency” the test site would be closed.
- “(It’s an) important process for global nuclear disarmament” — North Korea says it’ll work with the international community to halt nuclear testing worldwide.
- “We will never use nuclear weapons unless there is a nuclear threat or nuclear provocation to our country” — Nor will North Korea transfer nuclear weapons and technology, KCNA said.
- Commitment to “dramatically raise people’s lives” — Development of a “strong socialist economy” will become a priority for the country.
- North Korea “will intensify close ties and dialogue” — The country says it’ll improve relations with neighboring countries and the international community to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.
Six nuclear tests
North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test last September deep underground at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, in North Hamgyong province. The explosion created a magnitude-6.3 tremor, making it the most powerful weapon Pyongyang has ever tested.
North Korea has worked for years to miniaturize a nuclear warhead so it can be fitted atop a long-range missile and survive the heat-intensive process of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
Last year, Pyongyang tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile it said could reach the entire US mainland, raising the threat that Kim could realistically follow through on his threat to target the US.
Historic summits planned
The decision to halt nuclear and missile testing comes just one week before the leaders of South and North Korea are due to meet at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries.
The planned encounter follows months of warming relations since Kim held out an olive branch during this year’s New Year’s speech.
The two countries started talking again for the first time in two years via a special phone line, and those talks led to North Korea’s participation in South Korea’s Winter Olympics.
Kim extended an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-In to go to Pyongyang, and the two agreed to meet next Friday, April 27, at the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries. Ahead of the talks, a hotline between the two capitals was reconnected Friday afternoon.
The upcoming face-to-face talks mark an extraordinary shift in relations that deteriorated even further in 2017 as Kim launched a barrage of missile tests and boasted of the success of his nuclear program.