Kim Jong Un now says he’s willing to dismantle a key missile test site and permanently destroy North Korea’s main nuclear facility — but only if the U.S. and Donald Trump play ball.
The announcement came Wednesday as part of a declaration signed by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae In on the second day of their summit in Pyongyang, the third time the leaders have met in the past six months.
"The North has agreed to permanently shut down its Tongchang-ri missile engine testing facility and missile launch pad under the participation of experts from related countries," Moon said in a joint press conference with Kim after the summit.
But satellite imagery from July suggests the Tongchang-ri site, also known as the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, is already in the process of being dismantled.
Allowing independent inspectors to verify what’s happening would be seen as a significant step forward, but experts say the move will have no significant impact on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities.
“Shutting down [Tongchang-ri] will not seriously harm North Korea’s missile capabilities,” Baohui Zhang, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, told VICE News.
“The reason is that it may have completed all the required tests for ICBMs. So the test facility is no longer important. The real issue is whether [Kim] will stop producing ICBMs and disarm those already deployed,” Zhang added.
The declaration also states a willingness by Kim to permanently shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facility — where the North is understood to produce the material used in its nuclear tests — but only if the U.S. “take corresponding measures” as agreed in the declaration Trump signed with Kim in Singapore on June 12.
Kim didn’t elaborate on what those measures should be, but the North is believed to be seeking an easing of economic sanctions — something the White House says it is only willing to grant in exchange for complete denuclearization.
Kim’s proposal is seen by some as a way of kickstarting the stalled U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks that have floundered in recent weeks due to a perceived lack of progress by Pyongyang.
Trump welcomed Kim’s announcement as “very exciting” in a tweet late Tuesday night, though it is not clear what he meant by the term “nuclear inspections” as that was not part of the declaration signed in Pyongyang.
But experts remain wary that Kim’s promises are just superficial.
Jeffrey Lewis, who leads East Asia research at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, points out that Yongbyon is coming to the end of its natural life cycle anyway, and North Korea has other facilities where it can produce nuclear material.
“This step won’t make much difference in terms of its impact on DPRK-U.S. negotiations,” Zhang said. “Washington wants Kim to take concrete steps to dismantle his nuclear capabilities. It is still uncertain if Kim will do it. If he won’t, the current momentum will be reversed. The U.S. will be forced to return to the old posture of threats plus sanctions.”
Hours after departing Singapore in June at a much-touted summit with Kim, Trump declared the threat from North Korean nuclear weapons was gone, but in the weeks and months since then more evidence has emerged that Kim is continuing to produce nuclear weapons in secret.
Moon announced that he will visit Trump in Washington next week to debrief him on his meeting with Kim and push the U.S. president to restart negotiations with Pyongyang.
Cover: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) and South Korean President Moon Jae In head to the venue of their second day of talks at the Paekhwawon State Guest House in Pyongyang on Sept. 19, 2018. (Pyeongyang Press Corps) ==Kyodo