North Korea says it will demolish at least one additional weapons facility under the watch of international inspectors as the isolated state took a series of notable new steps toward denuclearization and normalization of relations with South Korea.
North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un on Wednesday agreed to move quickly toward erasing nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula, although he made no specific move to dismantle the atomic arsenal he has already amassed. A further offer to destroy a nuclear reactor and enrichment facility was also contingent upon North Korea first securing new U.S. concessions.
But a raft of specific commitments struck at a leaders summit in Pyongyang with South Korean president Moon Jae-in kindled fresh hope that Mr. Kim possesses a genuine determination to chart a less hostile and perhaps even nuclear-free future, even if much remains to be done. The commitments include steps to further diminish military threats on the Korean peninsula, a pledge to jointly bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics and the promise of a near-term visit by Mr. Kim to Seoul, which would be a first for a North Korean leader.
“There is a Korean saying that you cannot have a full stomach with one spoon. But at least all sides are excited to eat the food, so to speak,” said Yang Sung-chul, a former South Korean ambassador to the U.S. who is now a senior adviser to the Kim Dae-Jung Peace Foundation.
The agreements on Wednesday mark “historic progress,” he said, with “pretty unprecedented co-operation and agreement between the two sides.”
The North Korean concessions seemed, at a minimum, designed to restart talks with the U.S., and the White House immediately responded, with President Donald Trump, on Twitter, cheering the “very exciting!” developments in Pyongyang.
Mr. Moon, meanwhile, said he was “overwhelmed,” saying the ”path to complete denuclearization will be implemented and will be realized.”
Critics, however, accused North Korea of making gestures that amount to little change in its nuclear capabilities, while elevating expectations of a disarmament it has, so far, shown no sign of carrying out.
As far as demolition plans, “we have to remember that these types of steps have been taken before and neither facility is necessary for North Korea to continue its nuclear and missile programs,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
“You can be simultaneously optimistic about peace building between the Koreas and pessimistic about the denuclearization of the North,” James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote on Twitter. “Big question, though, is whether the U.S. can tolerate the former without the latter.”
Skeptics have expressed doubt that Mr. Kim will ever willingly abandon a weapons program whose great development cost has won him a substantial security guarantee.
Yet North Korea’s success in building new trust, particularly with South Korea, was reflected in the number of agreements struck on Wednesday. The two leaders promised joint efforts on fighting pandemics, building North Korean infrastructure, reviving tourism and reuniting families split apart by the Korean War.
Mr. Moon said of Mr. Kim on Wednesday: “I deeply commend his courageous and brave resolve.”
A military agreement signed by defence ministers of the two countries includes a series of steps to withdraw troops, landmines and exercises further from the demilitarized zone — which is in fact among earth’s most-heavily militarized areas — while expanding air and maritime buffer zones and creating a joint committee to monitor progress.
On nuclear weapons, meanwhile, Mr. Kim said he would allow international inspectors to witness the permanent decommissioning of the Dongchang-ri missile engine testing facility and missile launch pad, which has been used to test-fire its longest-range technologies. He also pledged the closing of the Yongbyon nuclear facility — the country’s first major nuclear site, which has been used to provide fissile material for atomic weapons — so long as the U.S. takes “corresponding measures.”
Though North Korea is believed to maintain facilities with similar capabilities elsewhere, “these two places are iconic and very well known around the world. By making compromises there, North Korea is providing assurances that it will change its focus from military empowerment to economic development,” said Wang Sheng, a North Korea expert at Jilin University in northeastern China.
Still, he said, “North Korea as a country believes in the principle of ‘action-for-action,’” Prof. Wang said. So far, “it’s not very satisfied with what has been done by the U.S. side. Now that it has abandoned major facilities, its next steps will largely depend on what the U.S. does.”
A Tuesday commentary in North Korea’s Workers’ Party-run Rodong Sinmun faulted Washington for “demanding unilateral and gangster-like” actions, and “forcing the DPRK to act without showing its movement,” the newspaper said.
The White House has said it wants to see substantial progress in North Korea before easing its “maximum pressure” campaign. U.S. officials have also demanded a full accounting of the North Korean nuclear program, which Pyongyang did not provide. Mr. Moon expects to travel to Washington for a meeting with Mr. Trump next week.
But “if the U.S. wants to see more progress on denuclearization of the peninsula, it will need to either take the lead and sign a peace treaty, or agree to the removal of at least part of sanctions now imposed against North Korea,” argued Cheng Xiaohe, an international politics scholar at Renmin University in Beijing.
It may even be time to give Pyongyang some benefit of the doubt, said Christopher Green, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group.
“I think we are at the point where ‘trust but verify’ is a more appropriate approach than ‘assume the worst,’” he said.
Still, the flurry of trust-building amounts to an opening act. Far more complicated issues remain, particularly those involving other parties, like the U.S.
“Moon and other pro-engagement people want to incrementally change the landscape of the peninsula so that, in the end, North Korea has more to lose than to gain by keeping its nuclear weapons,” Mr. Green said. “Is that possible? Yes. Does it require removal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella? Not necessarily. Is it going to be easy? Certainly not!”
With reporting by Alexandra Li