Kim Jong Un (File Photo)
North Korea has achieved its goal of developing a nuclear arsenal and is suspending further tests of atomic weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles, its state-run media reported, citing leader Kim Jong Un.
Kim said the nuclear test site in North Korea’s north will be closed, according to the Korean Central News Agency. Punggye-ri, built in a secluded mountain valley northeast of Pyongyang and the site for all six of the regime’s nuclear blasts, has already been in doubt amid signs of structural weakness, and some observers have said it would be unsafe to do more tests there.
“I solemnly declare that we have accomplished credible weaponization of nuclear forces,” Kim was quoted as saying at a Friday ruling party meeting. “Our decision to suspend nuclear tests is part of the world’s important steps for nuclear disarmament and our republic will join global efforts to completely suspend nuclear tests.”
The comments come ahead of his talks on April 27 with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a possible summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in May or June. While Kim’s statement that he has achieved his desired deterrent is largely a reiteration of prior claims, the announcement of a plan to mothball the test site suggests he is seeking to further ease tensions ahead of those meetings.
A spokesman for Moon said the KCNA report was a positive sign for Friday’s talks, while Trump praised Kim’s statement in a tweet, calling it “very good news for North Korea and the World.”
“Big progress!” he added. “Look forward to our Summit.” In a later tweet he noted that North Korea would “shut down a nuclear test site in the country’s Northern Side to prove the vow to suspend nuclear tests.”
North Korea has already effectively halted weapons tests for about five months, after firing a missile on Nov. 29 believed to be capable of reaching any city in the U.S. After that launch, which prompted the most restrictive United Nations sanctions yet, Kim declared his regime’s decades-long quest for nuclear weapons “complete.”
Commercial satellite imagery of Punggye-ri from March 17 showed no evidence of tunneling operations or personnel or vehicles in key areas, according to the 38 North website, which monitors North Korea.
Tunnels at the site suffered cave-ins during and after each nuclear test, said Hong Tae-kyung, a professor of geophysics at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
“A fair amount of tunnels have collapsed and there’s even a possibility of radioactive leaks there,” said Hong. “Realistically, it’s highly unlikely they can be used for nuclear tests any more.”
If North Korea resumed nuclear testing at some point it would probably pick another site in the east, which is less populated and carries lower risk of contamination for Pyongyang, Hong added.
Shin Beomchul, a professor at the Korean National Diplomatic Academy, called Kim’s comments a “very carefully coordinated calculation to build hopes of the world that it’s open to changes that could possibly follow the summits.”
“It’s still hard to tell from the statement if it has genuine intent to denuclearize,” Shin said. “Contents-wise, there’s no real change in its position.”
Kim has long said he wants his country to be recognized as a nuclear power, but nations including South Korea and the U.S. want him to go beyond a freeze and dismantle his arsenal entirely. Any progress on that front is likely to be slow and fraught, and prior efforts involving Kim’s late father when he was leader collapsed in acrimony.
In a speech on Thursday, Moon warned that implementing any deal with North Korea would be challenging, even if he was optimistic about reaching an “in-principle” agreement.
“Realistically speaking, we’re just entering the threshold for a dialogue,” Moon said.
Still, the regime is feeling the economic squeeze of sanctions, including by neighbor and ally China. And Kim at the party meeting spoke of the need to prioritize economic development for his impoverished country, according to KCNA.
The North Korean leader has placed greater emphasis on economic development alongside his nuclear goals since taking power in 2011, a shift that could make any offers of financial assistance from the U.S. and its allies more appealing in negotiations. In 2013, Kim for the first time declared his goal of “simultaneously‘’ pushing forward economic development and his nuclear force.
Kim’s statement is a “major opportunity to bring the Korean Peninsula out of the Cold War shadows,” China’s state-run Global Times said in a commentary. “It is hoped that Washington will take real action to consolidate the upbeat atmosphere, which includes scrapping U.S.-South Korea joint military drills or considerably reducing the size and frequency of the drills at the very least.”
The U.S., South Korea and Japan should immediately lift sanctions on North Korea except for broader UN-agreed penalties, it said.
Japan though expressed some skepticism.
“We have made many promises with North Korea, we paid money on the condition that they would end a test facility and such,” Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters in Washington. “But I remember that they just took our money.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed Kim’s announcement but told reporters it won’t change how Japan should handle the regime, Kyodo News reported.
Two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified said there was no reason not to believe Kim’s pledge was genuine. U.S. pressure on the regime had changed the calculus for Kim, one official said.
“This is a very serious initiative, it fits right in with North Korean policy and what they’ve been saying for a while,” said Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International
Studies who was involved in North Korea talks from 1993 to 1995. “They’ve decided that this is the moment to shift gears and to focus on developing their economy, end of story.”
North Korea won’t give up its nuclear weapons without reciprocal steps from the U.S. and others, he added. “But this is another sign that they are serious.”