North Korea says will stop nuclear, missile tests
Seoul: 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 dismantled, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a statement, without giving further details. 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 27 April with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a possible summit with US President Donald Trump in May or June. While Kim’s statement that he has achieved his desired nuclear 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 good sign for Friday’s summit, 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.”
North Korea has already effectively halted weapons tests for the past five months, after firing a missile on 29 November believed to be capable of reaching any city in the US. 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 from 17 March showed no evidence of tunneling operations or the presence of any personnel or vehicles in areas including those near the Command Center at Punggye-ri, 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, who has studied the seismic and geological data obtained from the tests. “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 US 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 in South Korea on Thursday previewing his meeting with Kim, 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 has been feeling the economic squeeze of sanctions, including by neighbour and ally China, and Trump has frequently warned of military retaliation if Kim were to threaten the US with its weapons.
Kim at the Friday party meeting spoke of the need to prioritize putting energy and resources into building the economy, according to the KCNA statement.
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 US 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.
Japan expressed initial skepticism about Kim’s pledges on his nuclear program.
“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 on Friday in Washington. “But I remember that they just took our money.”
Still, some analysts said that the push for peace on the peninsula was probably real.
“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, referring to Kim’s statement. “They’ve decided that this is the moment to shift gears and to focus on developing their economy, end of story.”
“I don’t know exactly how they’ll go about it,” he said. “But they’re not going to give up their nuclear weapons without reciprocal steps from the US and others. But this is another sign that they are serious.” Bloomberg