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North Korea’s New Promises on Weapons Stop Short of Denuclearization

SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, finally committed on Wednesday to some concrete steps toward denuclearization — most notably an offer to “permanently dismantle” facilities that are central to the production of fuel for nuclear warheads — but they fell far short of what American officials have demanded.

On the second day of his summit meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, Mr. Kim signed a series of agreements aimed at easing tensions between the two countries, like stopping military exercises and creating no-fly zones near their shared border. Mr. Kim also promised to visit Seoul, the South Korean capital, which would make him the first North Korean leader to make such a trip.

But more eye-catching to Washington was his promise to dismantle a missile engine-test facility and a missile launchpad in northwest North Korea that have been essential to the country’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and invite outside experts to watch.

To go further, Mr. Kim has demanded “corresponding” measures from the United States, like declaring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which was halted only with a truce. In return, he has proposed to “permanently dismantle” the Yongbyon nuclear complex, the heart of his country’s nuclear program, among other steps.

Mr. Kim’s offer to permanently dismantle the Yongbyon facilities is significant. North Korea is believed to have produced all its plutonium there. It also houses a centrifuge plant that produces highly enriched uranium, an alternative fuel for atomic bombs, though Western analysts suspect that the North also runs centrifuge plants elsewhere. But North Korea has frozen activities at Yongbyon before, only to restart it when negotations with Washington stalled.

The offers Mr. Kim made on Wednesday — as well as actions he has already taken, such as a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and the destruction of the North’s underground nuclear test site — indicated that he was willing to curtail his country’s ability to produce more nuclear warheads and ICBMs.

But they say little about what he will do with his existing arsenal. Mr. Kim’s ultimate goal, analysts say, is to make the Trump administration complacent enough about the recent détente to ease sanctions in return for a mere freeze — not the dismantlement — of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

“No matter how hard I look, I can find no real progress in denuclearization in today’s announcements,” said Cheon Seong-whun, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

South Korean officials cautioned Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon did not include some ideas they had discussed in the official agreements, leaving them for negotiations between the North and the United States. Mr. Moon, who is scheduled to brief Mr. Trump on Monday, sounded optimistic. So did Mr. Trump, who has been preparing for a second meeting with Mr. Kim despite the reservations of his hard-line aides.

“Based on the discussions we had here, the leaders of South Korea and the United States will be able to discuss ways of expediting denuclearization talks between the North and the United States,” Chung Eui-yong, Mr. Moon’s national security adviser, told South Korean reporters in Pyongyang. “We hope that a summit meeting between the North and the U.S. will take place soon.”

Mr. Moon began his three-day trip to Pyongyang on Tuesday with a complicated mission: advancing North-South ties and jump-starting stalled talks between Washington and Pyongyang on how to denuclearize the North.

As the 1988 Seoul Olympics helped transform South Korea from a dictatorship to a globalizing economy, South Korean officials hope one part of the agreement — a joint bid to bring the 2032 Games to the peninsula — would improve inter-Korean ties and encourage North Korea to open up and denuclearize.

“In this summit, President Moon made great strides in advancing inter-Korean ties,” said Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. “If Kim Jong-un cannot abandon his nuclear weapons outright, given the stiff opposition from his military, you have to create an environment where it becomes inevitable for the North to part with them. The Olympics might just do that.”

But there was doubt that the agreements on Wednesday would please “inflexible” hard-liners in Washington who consider sanctions “the best and only tool for denuclearization,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.

Since then, Mr. Trump has been more supportive of Mr. Kim’s overtures than many of his top foreign policy aides, who have pushed to maintain punishing sanctions that they believe have brought North Korea to the negotiating table.

As he seeks relief from the pain of international sanctions, Mr. Kim has found an eager partner in Mr. Moon.

Since he took power in May 2017, Mr. Moon has made removing the threat of war and improving relations with the North his top policy goals. Recently he set forth a bold vision for connecting the two Koreas’ economies.

In return for such large-scale economic cooperation, Mr. Moon wants Mr. Kim to give up his nuclear weapons, which the South Korean leader sees as raising the chances of American military action. Indeed, United States officials have repeatedly warned South Korea not to engage the North economically until it starts giving up its nuclear arms and the United Nations lifts sanctions.

American officials, mindful of North Korea’s past failure to live up to its promises, are insisting that North Korea move quickly toward denuclearization by submitting an inventory of its nuclear weapons and fissile materials. But North Korea insists on denuclearizing “in phases” and has demanded that Washington first take steps to show it has no hostile intent, initially with a joint declaration ending the Korean War, something analysts say could bolster the North’s case for removing American troops from South Korea.

In Pyongyang this week, Mr. Moon again played mediator, trying to narrow the differences between North Korea and the United States on how denuclearization should proceed, and working toward a second meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump.

Seizing on Mr. Moon’s efforts, Mr. Kim gave the South Korean leader a warm welcome, mobilizing an estimated 100,000 North Koreans shouting “Reunification of the fatherland!” to greet their motorcade. At Mr. Kim’s suggestion, the two leaders plan on Thursday to visit Mount Baekdu near the border with China, a place considered the spiritual home of all Koreans.

“The two Korean governments are declaring that the future of the peninsula should be decided by Koreans themselves,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “If Kim Jong-un returns Moon’s visit with a summit in Seoul, that would be a significant step for reconciliation. But this impressive summit diplomacy will be unsustainable without North Korea’s denuclearization and improvement of human rights.”

Source: NYT > World

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