North Korea suspends missile launches and shuts down nuclear test site ahead of key summits

Chris Graham
The Telegraph
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea  - REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea  - REUTERS

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un has announced Pyongyang will carry out no more ballistic missile tests and will shut down its nuclear test site, the latest olive branch from the regime as diplomacy in the region ramps up.

The declaration, long sought by the US, was welcomed by the US, but analysts cautioned that the pledges also raised a number of questions. 

The diplomatic gesture from North Korea comes less than a week before Mr Kim meets South Korean leader Moon Jae-in for a summit, and ahead of a much-anticipated encounter with US President Donald Trump.

"As the weaponisation of nuclear weapons has been verified, it is not necessary for us to conduct any more nuclear tests or test launches of mid- and long range missiles or ICBMs," Mr Kim told a ruling party meeting.

"The northern nuclear test site has completed its mission," he added at the gathering of the central committee of the Workers' Party, according to the official KCNA news agency.

Mr Trump welcomed the announcement and said he was looking forward to the summit. 

South Korea's presidential office welcomed North Korea's announcement as "meaningful progress" towards the denuclearisation of the peninsula.

Presidential official Yoon Young-chan said the North's decision brightens the prospects for successful talks between Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington.

China's foreign ministry said  it welcomed North Korea's move, which it said would help ease tensions on the Korean peninsula and promote denuclearisation.

"The Chinese side believes that North Korea's decision will help ameliorate the situation on the peninsula," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Japan guarded in its reaction

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed the announcement too but was a bit more guarded in his reaction.

"What is crucial here ... is how this development is going to lead to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of nuclear arms, weapons of mass destruction and missiles," he said.

"And I will keep a close eye on that."

Mr Abe said Tokyo would maintain its policy coordination with Seoul and Washington.

His defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, went further, saying Japan was not satisfied with North Korea's pledge and warning that Tokyo will continue to put maximum pressure on Pyongyang.

"We can't be satisfied," Mr Onodera told reporters in Washington, saying North Korea did not mention "abandonment of short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles".

The North's decisions were made in a meeting of the ruling party's full Central Committee which had convened to discuss a "new stage" of policies. 

North Korea shifts focus to economy

In a significant policy shift, Mr Kim said his country would be focusing more on the economy now, rather than the military. 

For years the impoverished North has pursued a "byungjin" policy of developing both the military and the economy, but Mr Kim said that as it was now a powerful state, "the whole party and the whole nation should now focus on the development of the socialist economy".

"This is the party's new strategic policy line," KCNA cited him as saying.

<span>Attendees at the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea&nbsp;</span> <span>Credit: Reuters </span>
Attendees at the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea  Credit: Reuters

Martyn Williams, a North Korea analyst and journalist, said it was "a sign of his confidence in the country's position in the region now".

"With the successful nuclear tests, he clearly believes he is in a position of strength and there is geo-political balance on the Korean peninsula," he told The Telegraph.

He also said the sanctions on the regime had been taking their toll and this move could see them eased.

"Unlike previous rounds, China appears to have taken then much more seriously and the economy is suffering," Williams said.

Analysts cautious over announcement

Pyongyang has made rapid technological progress in its weapons programmes under Mr Kim, which has seen it subjected to increasingly strict sanctions by the UN Security Council, US, EU, South Korea and others.

<span>North Korean launching of the Hwasong-15 missile which is capable of reaching all parts of the US in November 2017</span> <span>Credit: AFP/&nbsp;KCNA VIA KNS </span>
North Korean launching of the Hwasong-15 missile which is capable of reaching all parts of the US in November 2017 Credit: AFP/ KCNA VIA KNS

Last year it carried out its sixth nuclear test, by far its most powerful to date, and launched missiles capable of reaching mainland United States.

Analysts said the move announcement was significant but noted the regime was not ruling out future tests.

"The precise language here is important," said Vipin Narang, a nonproliferation expert at MIT. 

"Closing the testing site doesn’t preclude atmospheric nuclear tests for example (or other sites). And missile tests could still be conducted under the guise of space launch vehicles."

Nam Sung-wook, professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University in Seoul, said it was "sensational" that Mr Kim had personally declared plans to suspend nuclear development, but added that his remarks left a number of questions.

"It still does not seem clear if it means whether the North will just not pursue further development of its nuclear programmes in the future, or whether they will completely shut down 'all' nuclear facilities. And what are they going to do with their existing nuclear weapons?" Nam said.

The  Koreas are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty and the North has been engaged in a standoff over its nuclear and missile programmes that it conducts in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

But tensions have eased in recent months, with the North taking part in the Winter Olympics in the South in February and an exchange of threats of war with the United States and other bellicose rhetoric evaporating.

The meeting between Mr Kim and Mr Moon will only be the third summit between the rivals since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War and could prove to be significant in the global diplomatic push to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Hopes for US detainees

The US president confirmed this week that CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a secret trip to North Korea over the Easter weekend to lay the groundwork for the unprecedented upcoming summit.

The unexpected and clandestine meeting is believed to have taken place on April 1, the same day Mr Kim was also welcoming a delegation of K-pop stars to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

Mr Pompeo was given assurances by Mr Kim that a summit with the US president could be paired with the release of three detained US citizens, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

Plans for a summit between Mr Trump and the North Korean leader were moving toward a mid-June rendezvous somewhere outside northeast Asia, people briefed on the meeting told the newspaper.

North Korea's nuclear history: key moments
North Korea's nuclear history: key moments

Plans are moving ahead, meanwhile, for the summit between Mr Kim and Mr Moon on Friday.

The two countries installed a direct phone line between their leaders on Friday as they prepare for the first summit since 2007.

South Korea's presidential Blue House and North Korea's State Affairs Commission tested the hot line for four minutes, the office said.

"The call quality was very good and we felt like we got a call from our next-door neighbour," South Korea's director for the Government Situation Room, Youn Kun-young, told reporters.

<span>An official talks on a phone for testing a hotline between the two Koreas at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul</span> <span>Credit: Reuters </span>
An official talks on a phone for testing a hotline between the two Koreas at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul Credit: Reuters

Mr Moon will now be able to pick up his office phone to talk to Kim, instead of communicating through a hot line at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.

The leaders plan to make their first telephone conversation sometime before their face-to-face meeting on Friday at Panmunjom.

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