North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un offered on Wednesday to permanently dismantle the country’s main nuclear site, but only if the United States makes concessions first.
The leaders of the two Koreas have been meeting in Pyongyang in an attempt to push forward their peace process, as well as advance dialogue with the United States. Standing side by side after their second day of talks, they declared they had made a major step toward an “era of peace and prosperity” on the Korean Peninsula.
Kim pledged to visit the South Korean capital Seoul, in what would be a first for a North Korean leader. And he also pledged to allow in “external inspectors” to verify that a key missile test site had been disabled.
The talks were supposed to enhance cooperation between the two Koreas, as well as pave the way for a second summit between Kim and President Trump later this year.
Experts said it was far from clear that Kim had made concessions that would make a summit an attractive proposition for the U.S. administration, but Trump himself reacted positively, calling the news “very exciting” on Twitter.
“We have agreed to make the Korean Peninsula a land of peace that is free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threat,” Kim said. “The road to our future will not always be smooth and we may face challenges and trials we can’t anticipate. But we aren’t afraid of head winds because our strength will grow as we overcome each trial based on the strength of our nation.”
Talks between the United States and North Korea have reached an impasse over who should make the next move. Washington wants Pyongyang to take a meaningful step toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program. North Korea, however, is pushing for the United States to declare the 1950-1953 Korean War formally over, and claims Trump made a promise to that effect in Singapore.
In a joint statement, North Korea pledged to “permanently dismantle” a missile engine test site and launchpad at Tongchang-ri “in the presence of experts from related countries.” That is a site he had already promised to close, although allowing in foreign inspectors would be a step forward.
Chung Eui-yong, director of South Korea’s National Security Office, described the move as “a concrete achievement” of the summit, adding that U.S. inspectors would be among those allowed in to verify it.
“These moves are expected to help resolve the international community’s doubts toward North Korea’s pre-emptive dismantling moves in the past as a mere show,” he said, according to a pool report.
North Korea also “expressed the will to continue taking further steps like permanent dismantlement” of its main Yongbyon nuclear facility but only if the United States takes “corresponding steps” based on Trump’s agreement with Kim at their June summit in Singapore.
But there wasn’t enough in terms of new, concrete promises to satisfy many experts. Within Trump’s own administration, senior officials want North Korea to begin by declaring its nuclear and missile sites, rather than making piecemeal, unilateral concessions. Experts also believe North Korea has continued to build nuclear weapons this year.
“The world needs to remember that North Korea has other nuclear and missile facilities, and that these concession will not necessarily limit or end their nuclear or missile programs,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
Hanham said North Korea had made similar offers during previous rounds of negotiations, but the steps it had ultimately taken — demolishing a cooling tower at Yongbyon in 2008 for example — had been easily reversed.
Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford, called the outcome “quite disappointing” in terms of denuclearization, given that there was no sign of Pyongyang’s willingness to provide a full accounting of its nuclear and missile facilities.
But others took a more positive view.
John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, argued that the two men had succeeded in keeping negotiations moving forward in a process that was always going to be gradual.
Andrew Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said it would take time to understand the significance of what Kim was offering, especially in relation to its Yongbyon facility, home to the country’s only nuclear reactor and key to its production of weapons-grade plutonium — although other sites are believed to exist producing highly enriched uranium.
“If Yongbyon is actually frozen, it will not mean the end of their nuclear program, it will not even mean the end of their production of nuclear weapons, but it will be a significant decline in their ability to produce more nuclear material and nuclear weapons,” he said.
Moon and Kim also agreed to several measures to ease tensions across the world’s most militarized border, including the establishment of a buffer zone near the front line to suspend artillery drills and field maneuvers, as well as an agreement to each pull back 11 border guard posts by year’s end.
The leaders agreed to set up a buffer zone in the Yellow Sea to suspend firing of guns and maritime drills, as well as a no-fly zone in border areas to prevent accidental plane clashes.
The pair also announced that the two Koreas would compete together at the Olympics in 2020 and make a joint bid to hold the Summer Games in 2032, and also pledged to allow more contact between families divided by the Korean War.
Moon again dangled the carrot of close economic cooperation, promising to reopen a joint industrial complex at Kaesong in North Korea and a tourism center at Mount Kumgang, as well as establish other special economic and tourism zones in the North “as conditions are set.”
They also pledged to hold a groundbreaking ceremony this year for railways and roads to connect the two Koreans along their eastern and western coasts.
None of those economic measures will be possible unless the United Nations Security Council lifts sanctions on North Korea, however.
Trump was enthusiastic about the summit, declaring that Kim “has agreed to allow Nuclear inspections, subject to final negotiations.”
But members of his own administration are known to be more wary about North Korea’s intentions.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted that he was concerned Moon’s visit would undermine efforts by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to impose “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang through sanctions.
“While North Korea has stopped testing missiles and nuclear devices, they have NOT moved toward denuclearization,” he tweeted.
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