BY PRABASI NEPALI
At a time when North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is preparing for historic summits with the presidents of South Korea and the United States, the country’s state TV made the surprise announcement early last Saturday local time that North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles with immediate effect. It also said a test site would be shut down. This has received a broad international welcome. Leader Kim Jong-un said further tests were not necessary, as the North had effectively demonstrated it had functioning nuclear weapons, implying that it was a de facto ‘nuclear power’, whatever the international community thought. Kim said North Korea has “reached the target stage, where the nation and the people’s safety is reliably secured and the next stage is building on efforts to denuclearize, “which is the peace-loving platform of our party.” In clear terms, this was a unilateral declaration that the isolated nation now had achieved ‘nuclear deterrence’ vis-à-vis America. North Korea’s announcement could be a negotiating gambit in advance of the upcoming summits. It is also another indication that, despite rampant smuggling across the China-North Korea border – the latest economic sanctions are beginning to hurt.
US President Donald Trump described the move as “good news” for North Korea and the world. He also said he was looking forward to a face-to-face meeting with Kim this coming June. He had already sent CIA Director Mike Pompeo (and nominee for Secretary of State) secretly to Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for the summit. South Korea said it was meaningful progress. The European Union (EU) said it was “positive”, but called for ‘complete denuclearization’ – a very vague characterization, meaning different things to different countries.
Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are due to meet this Friday for the first inter-Korean summit in over a decade. Moon’s office said the North’s decision would “contribute to creating a very positive environment for the success of the upcoming South-North summit and North-United States summit.” European Union foreign policy commissioner Federica Mogherini said it was a “long sought-after step” that should lead to “verifiable and irreversible denuclearization”. The call was repeated by the UK. The statement from the British government added: “We hope this indicates an effort to negotiate in good faith.” The US and its allies – above all South Korea and Japan, where US
nuclear weapons are not stationed – have exhorted North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons.
China, North Korea’s main ally and sponsor welcomed the decision, and said it believed the move would “help ameliorate the situation on the peninsula”. The official Xinhua News Agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang as saying Beijing wishes for North Korea to continue to achieve results in the development of its economy and improving the living standards of its people. He says China will support North Korea through dialogue and consultations with “relevant parties” to resolve their concerns and improve relations. Russia’s foreign ministry also welcomed the sudden development, but called on the US and South Korea to reduce their military activity in the region [North-East Asia]. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that “North Korea’s announcement is forward motion that I’d like to welcome,” but added that results matter: “But what’s important is that this motion leads to complete, verifiable and irreversible [destruction] of [North Korea’s] nuclear and missile programmes.” However for this to be [eventually] achieved, long and dogged negotiations will be necessary and not instant success Trumpian techniques.
Kim’s statement echoes a previous announcement made during a New Year address in which he declared his nuclear and ballistic missile programme completed. However, although Pyongyang said it would abolish one of its nuclear test sites, there is no indication it is planning to destroy its existing nuclear weapons. The decision to halt missile tests is also aimed at pursuing economic growth, according to the country’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) news agency. Kim reportedly pledged to “concentrate all efforts” on developing a socialist economy during last Friday’s meeting of the Workers’ Party.
North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests, the most recent in September 2017. The tests have sparked international condemnation, and late last year the United Nations Security Council imposed punishing sanctions on the isolated country. In the KCNA statement, Kim said, “Every process involved with nuclear development” has been carried out, and “the means of delivery also has been conducted scientifically, resulting in the completion of nuclear weaponization.” Since the country would halt nuclear tests and stop test-firing midrange and intercontinental ballistic missiles, “accordingly, the northern nuclear test ground has ended its mission.”Kim said, according to KCNA, that “no nuclear test and intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] now, given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was finished.”
The suspension of nuclear tests could be subterfuge, but also a sign Pyongyang is serious about talks. The development could be seen as a concession from North Korea ahead of the planned meeting between Kim and Trump, which officials said might take place in June. Details are still being discussed. Trump and Kim traded fiery rhetoric last year and in January over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. Kim said in a New Year’s Day address that “the entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat.” In his infantile manner, Trump responded on Twitter, saying: “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Trump said last week that he was looking forward to the proposed North Korea meeting, but also warned that he could cancel the visit, or leave while it was in progress, if he thought the meeting would not be fruitful.” This is indeed a strange posture to adopt – expecting too much in advance in very complicated negotiations which require time and patience. Of course, US negotiators from the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations have been fooled before by North Korean promises to disable nuclear and missile facilities, only to discover later they simply relocated their programmes to other underground sites. But this time around the situation is quite different and more promising – if Trump does not make a mess of it all! The Trump administration must fully draw on the expertise of professional analysts at the CIA, the National Security Council, and those remaining at the decimated State Department. It is indeed an unexpected golden opportunity and a unique chance for significant change for a peninsula living on a nuclear precipice for decades – if not full denuclearization, then at least some form of verifiable containment.
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]