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NK commitment keeps denuclearization momentum alive

North Korea said Wednesday it would permanently dismantle a key missile facility, a gesture experts say will keep alive the momentum for dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington but falls short of a major denuclearization step.

In a joint statement signed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea said it would “permanently” dismantle its Dongchang-ri missile engine test site and a launch pad in the presence of international experts.

North Korea also expressed willingness to permanently dismantle its main nuclear complex if the US takes corresponding measures. 

Experts view one of the “corresponding measures” as the end-of-war declaration that North Korea has been seeking from the US. The US has, on the other hand, demanded the North take more concrete steps to denuclearize first -- such as providing a list of sites and an inventory of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Moon traveled to Pyongyang for his third meeting with Kim from Tuesday to Thursday with the aim of breaking the stalemate in the denuclearization talks between North Korea and the US.

“It is the best deal under the circumstances. North Korea mentioning the permanent dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities is considerable progress,” said Cho Han-bum, a researcher from the Korean Institute for National Unification.

“Based on that, the US and North Korea would be able to reach a deal on the end-of-war declaration in exchange for dismantling of the Yongbyon facilities at their second summit,” Cho said.

It is the first time Kim himself mentioned “denuclearization” and expressed his willingness to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for a corresponding measure by the US.

The North Korean leader said that he was willing to make the Korean Peninsula a “land of peace” free of nuclear weapons and nuclear threats at the joint press conference with Moon.

Moon hailed the Pyongyang Declaration as marking the first time the two Koreas agreed on a way to achieve denuclearization. He also expressed hope the talks between North Korea and the US could resume in the near future. 

(Joint Press Corps)
(Joint Press Corps)

South Korea’s National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong also called the agreement “considerable progress” in terms of resolving fears of war on the Korean Peninsula, and achieving complete denuclearization.

“There was a lot of discussion, aside from the content of the joint declaration released,” Chung told reporters in Pyongyang. “Based on the result of the discussions, it has become possible for the leaders of South Korea and the US to hold in-depth discussions on accelerating North Korea-US denuclearization negotiations at their summit in New York early next week.”

Moon will head to New York on Sunday to meet with US President Donald Trump the next day on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, according to Moon’s chief press secretary Yoon Young-chan. He is expected to brief Trump on the result of his meeting with Kim.

Other experts, however, were more cautious, saying what was released to the public showed no meaningful progress on denuclearization.

Trump had already said that the North was “destroying” the missile engine testing site at the press conference, following the June 12 Singapore summit. South Korea’s special envoys also said after their recent trip to Pyongyang that the North had virtually dismantled the site.

“North Korea has not made any concession, sticking to its demand for the US to declare an end to the Korean War first before it takes concrete steps to dismantle its existing nuclear weapons program,” said Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University.

It remains to be seen whether dismantling the missile site in the presence of international experts means the North will allow a verification or inspection, he said.

“I don’t think it is a denuclearization measure concrete enough for the US to agree to the end-of-war declaration, or to move forward the talks with North Korea,” Park said.

Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator, also noted that North Korea made it clear that it is using its typical “delay tactic” to get more concessions from the US even before Washington and Pyongyang enter the “starting point” of denuclearization negotiations.

“The most important thing is to declare nuclear facilities hidden somewhere in the North, but it was not even mentioned,” he said.

The question is whether the North’s commitment will be enough for US President Donald Trump to move forward on denuclearization talks. The White House earlier said a second summit between Trump and Kim is in the works. 

“Despite the negative feedback in Washington, Trump is highly likely to take the offer and agree to declare an end to the Korean War first in return for North Korea’s shutdown of its major nuclear complex,” said Woo Jeong-yeop, a researcher at the Sejong Institute.

“As Trump sees it, dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex, which no other presidents have accomplished, could generate the attention he needs to sway the midterm elections in his favor.”

Immediately after the joint announcement by Moon and Kim, US President Donald Trump delivered his version of the news, saying Kim agreed to “allow nuclear inspections, subject to final negotiations,” and to “permanently dismantle a test site and launch pad in the presence of international experts.”

Kim Heung-kyu, a professor at Ajou University, said there was a high possibility that Kim verbally promised something extra behind the scenes, which could not be made public.

“Moon has thrown the ball to the court of the US and North Korea again so that they can agree on a concrete deal on denuclearization in return for a security guarantee,” Kim said.

“It is difficult to make a judgment on whether the summit was successful or not now, but I believe it is enough to keep the momentum for dialogue alive between the US and North Korea.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (