Kim's nuclear u-turn
North Korea's pledge on weapons development should be taken with a pinch of salt, says Nicola Smith
On the face of it, North Korea's surprise announcement yesterday to suspend its nuclear and missile tests and shut down its atomic test site showed that Kim Jong-un is making the right gestures ahead of next week's summit with Moon Jae-in, South Korea's president.
Kim's six-point suspension plan, including a pledge not to transfer nuclear weapons or technology, was released early yesterday by the KCNA, the official state mouthpiece.
The move was welcomed by South Korea as "meaningful progress for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula". Britain described the announcement as "a positive step" and Donald Trump said it was "very good for North Korea and the world".
"Look forward to our summit," the US president tweeted.
But as with any deal, the most important detail lies in the fine print. Experts quickly pointed out that the language used has left Kim more room for manoeuvre than would first appear.
Their scepticism has raised the wider question of whether the pace of warming relations between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington has made expectations for the forthcoming summits simply too high.
Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Programme at the Kissinger Institute, described the suspension of tests as "a positive signal, but not a game changer", adding that it was "easily reversible". Significantly, the six-point plan makes no pledge to destroy existing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The European Union's foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said North Korea's move was a positive step and called for an "irreversible denuclearisation" of the country.
German foreign minister Heiko Maas said North Korea's announcement was a step in the right direction but it must "disclose its complete nuclear and missile programme in a verifiable way".
Melissa Hanham, a denuclearisation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said Kim has previously declared he is "satisfied" with his nuclear programme. There have been no missile tests recently and there is perhaps no need for them now.
Further dampening any celebrations are memories of broken promises. The Leap Day Deal of 2012, forged in the dying days of Kim Jong-il, Kim's father, would have frozen North Korea's nuclear and missile development and let in inspectors to its plutonium reactor in exchange for US food aid. Instead it fell apart after Pyongyang launched a satellite into space. It said it was for "peaceful purposes" but Washington said was a missile test.
Further doubts over the latest offer centre on whether there are test sites beyond the well-documented Punggye-ri. Closing the testing site does not "preclude atmospheric nuclear tests" - and tests "could still be conducted under the guise of space launch vehicles. Language matters," said Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.
"The definitions and phrases around denuclearisation have been divergent," he said. The clear US demand of "comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation" of North Korea remains unchanged. North Korea, on the other hand, has traditionally demanded the "denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula", referring to the perceived threat by the US and South Korea.
Despite last week's overtures from Pyongyang that it may be willing to allow 28,000 US troops to remain in South Korea, clarity over Kim's concessions, demands and willingness to disarm will only emerge when he sits at the negotiating table. "I can't see how we could credibly commit to doing anything that would convince him to give up [nuclear weapons] in their entirety," said Narang. "He comes with a much stronger hand."
Narang said of the summit: "Both sides want to walk away with a win. It would allow them to say the other side is working towards denuclearisation, without committing either side to doing anything." Bonnie Glaser, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said: "Trump wants a deal. He prides himself in being able to do things that other people have not done."
She added: "We're going to see a summit that at least Trump says is successful and then we begin a process of negotiations and people will start taking bets on at what juncture it falls apart." Serious doubts remained over Kim's sincerity, she said. "I would say he'll try to get early sanctions release and economic assistance up front."
UN Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea after its first nuclear test in 2006 and extended over the past decade have banned critical exports such as coal, iron ore, seafood and textiles while limiting oil imports.
That has threatened the policy of 'byungjin' - simultaneous military and economic development - that Kim has adopted since taking power in 2011.
In the past, North Korea has said its nuclear and missile programmes are necessary deterrents against American hostility. It has conducted missile tests with the aim of being able to hit the US with a nuclear bomb.
The tests and escalating angry rhetoric by Trump and Kim raised fears of war until, in a New Year's speech, the North Korean leader called for a reduction in military tensions.
He sent a delegation to the Winter Olympics in the South in February, leading to a thaw in relations with his old enemies.