Good and bad news in NKorea’s latest nuke offer

Eric Talmadge
Associated Press

Tokyo – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has finally broken his silence on what he plans to bring to the table during his summits with the South Korean and U.S. presidents – and it doesn’t appear to have a whole lot to do with tossing out his hard-won nuclear arsenal.

At least not yet.

Ending weeks of ominous silence from Pyongyang, Kim laid out a new strategy at a meeting Friday of the central committee of his ruling party that suspends underground nuclear tests and test-launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles. He also said the country’s nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, already believed to be essentially inoperable, will be closed and “dismantled.”

The announcement, which also stressed Kim’s desire to turn his focus to economic development, played very well in world capitals.

President Donald Trump immediately took to Twitter to praise the announcement as “very good news for North Korea and the World.” Seoul and Beijing welcomed it. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a hard-liner on North Korea, tried to keep his response positive, though he stressed the need for vigilance to see what happens in the coming months.

Just last year, about the only messages coming out of Pyongyang were vitriolic threats of merciless retaliation and warnings of the gathering dark clouds of nuclear war. Now, Kim is claiming he can be more magnanimous because “a fresh climate of detente and peace is being created on the Korean Peninsula and the region and dramatic changes are being made in the international political landscape,” according to the North’s state-run media, which reported the announcement on Saturday.

For sure, a lot of positive results can come from Kim’s summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, set for next Friday, and Trump, expected in late May or early June. The North and South may agree to allow more reunions for families that were divided by the 1950-53 Korean War, and Kim is reportedly open to releasing three Americans now in North Korean custody.

But the big “get” – the end of North Korea’s nuclear program – isn’t looking any closer than it was before Kim’s announcement.

North Korea for decades has been pushing a concept of “denuclearization” that bears no resemblance to the American definition, vowing to pursue nuclear development unless Washington offers ironclad guarantees of its security and removes its nearly 30,000 troops from the peninsula.

Kim seems to be more flexible than he had been previously regarding the troops, and he echoed Pyongyang’s hope for security assurances and for the day when the world will have no nuclear weapons. But far from suggesting North Korea is seriously mulling getting rid of its own, Kim’s latest position looks a lot like a statement that his country is now a nuclear power and the United States should simply accept that and treat him as an equal.

Not only did Kim praise his policy of developing nuclear weapons, calling it a “miraculous” success,” but a resolution passed by the committee afterward goes on to explicitly state North Korea’s promise to be a responsible nuclear power that would never use nuclear weapons “unless there are nuclear threats and nuclear provocations” against it.

The summits still lie ahead. It’s possible that is just the starting point and that Kim may be willing to offer more concessions once the real talking begins.

Then again, maybe not.

“Kim Jong Un just said, in effect, that North Korea is an arrived nuclear power and he will give up nukes when the rest of the world does,” said Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “I sense that Kim Jong Un’s commitment to denuclearization has been greatly oversold.”

Some important items were also conspicuously left off the North’s resolution.

It did not announce a moratorium on short- or mid-range missile launches – a big concern for Japan, which is within their range – or ground-based engine testing. It also did not suspend the production of fissile material to build additional warheads, or the production of the longer-range missiles, which are Washington’s primary concern.

The North also reserves the right to launch space-bound rockets, though that can be a means of testing dual-use technology that can also benefit its missile programs. And at the height of Pyongyang’s standoff with Washington and Seoul last year, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told reporters that the country could conduct an atmospheric hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean.

Nothing in the suspension would stop such a test.

Nevertheless, Kim appears to be well on his way to his “get” – the Trump summit itself.

“No North Korean leader has ever been granted an audience with the President of the United States. And here is Kim Jong Un sitting down with the president as a fellow nuclear weapons power, as an equal,” Vipin Narang, an associate political science professor and nuclear proliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an email.

“The domestic political and international political win of that alone would be a historic coup for Kim,” he said.