TOKYO -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared that he will suspend nuclear and missile tests starting today, and that he will shut down the site where the previous six nuclear tests were conducted.
"From April 21, North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles," the Korean Central News Agency said in a report today.
The surprising announcement comes just six days before Kim is set to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a precursor to a historic meeting between Kim and President Donald Trump. Trump is set to meet Kim at the end of May or beginning of June, although a location has not yet been set.
Both Moon and Trump have been saying that North Korea is now willing to "denuclearize." But North Korea for decades has been pushing a concept of "denuclearization" that bears no resemblance to the American definition, vowing to pursue nuclear development unless Washington removes its troops from the peninsula.
South Korea's presidential office welcomed North Korea's announcement as "meaningful progress" toward the denuclearization of the peninsula. Presidential official Yoon Young-chan said in a statement that the North's decision brightens the prospects for successful talks between Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington.
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."
Shortly after the announcement from Pyongyang, Trump tweeted, "North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the World - big progress! Look forward to our Summit."
But Kim's statement today made no mention of North Korea giving up its program. It simply signaled a freeze, apparently because the leader is satisfied with the rapid progress it made last year, developing what it said was a "super large heavy warhead" and a missile capable of carrying it to the U.S. mainland.
North Korea has "verified the completion of nuclear weapons," Kim reportedly said during a meeting of the central committee of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, convened Friday to discuss policy issues related to "a new stage" in a "historic" period.
As such, it "will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles" effective immediately, he said.
The Korean Central News Agency said the country is making the move to shift its national focus and improve its economy.
The North also vowed to actively engage with regional neighbors and the international community to secure peace in the Korean Peninsula and create an "optimal international environment" to build its economy.
The Korean Workers' Party's Central Committee declared the announcement a "great victory" in the country's official "byungjin" policy line of simultaneously pursuing economic and nuclear development.
The committee unanimously adopted a resolution that called for concentrating national efforts to achieve a strong socialist economy and "groundbreaking improvements in people's lives."
"To secure transparency on the suspension of nuclear tests, we will close the republic's northern nuclear test site," the party's resolution said.
The Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying during the meeting: "We no longer need any nuclear test or test launches of intermediate and intercontinental range ballistic missiles, and because of this the northern nuclear test site has finished its mission."
THREAD OF SKEPTICISM
There has been considerable skepticism among North Korea experts that Kim, having poured so much money and effort into the program, not to mention his personal prestige, would give it up so readily.
Many pointed out that Kim's statement does not in any way suggest that he's about to do so.
"There is nothing in North Korea's statement that signals a willingness to give up their nukes," said Benjamin Silberstein, a North Korea researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
"On the contrary, the tone of the message is one of confidence and strength," he said.
Still, the step is part of a broader and rapidly developing effort to use diplomacy to resolve the standoff on the Korean Peninsula, after months of threats at the end of last year that stoked fears of a military conflict.
Next Friday, Kim will cross the demarcation line that has divided the peninsula since the end of the Korean War, becoming the first North Korean leader to do so since the war ended. He will step into "Peace House" on the southern side of the line to meet Moon, with their encounter being broadcast live.
Moon signaled this week that everything was on the table at the meeting.
"North Korea is expressing its intention for complete denuclearization," Moon said Thursday. "And it is not making demands that the U.S. cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of the U.S. forces in Korea," he said.
The U.S. military has 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, with backups in Japan and on Guam -- the legacy of the standoff that has ensued since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953.
Earlier Friday, South Korea's presidential office said a successful test call was conducted on a hotline installed between Seoul's presidential Blue House and Pyongyang's powerful State Affairs Commission.
South Korean officials say the hotline, which will be maintained after Moon and Kim's meeting, will help facilitate dialogue and reduce misunderstanding during times of tension.
Trump also this week voiced optimism about his meeting with Kim, although he said he would walk away from the talks if they were not looking constructive.
"I think we're going to be successful," Trump said shortly after it was revealed that his CIA director, Mike Pompeo, met Kim in Pyongyang over Easter weekend for talks about the meeting. "But for any reason if I think we're not, we end," the president said.
WHAT'S ON THE TABLE?
As the presidents of South Korea and the United States prepare for meetings with the previously reclusive Kim, there has been lots of conjecture about what exactly the North Korean leader is prepared to discuss.
But North Korea had said very little about all this -- and that had plenty of analysts worried that expectations for this meeting are too high.
The fact that North Korea has now signaled it is prepared to at least freeze its program is extremely significant, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
"North Korea's pledge to close down its nuclear weapons testing site is a very significant pledge toward denuclearization," Kimball said. "The U.S. and others should solidify this by securing North Korean signature and ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, along with confidence building visit by the Comprehensive Test Ban Organization."
Others point out that North Korea has been sending signals through what it has not been saying. It's not talking about the U.S. strike on Syria, it's not talking about the U.S. military conducting drills in South Korea, and it's not talking about the "heinous" and "hostile" United States.
It hasn't even commented on the return of national security adviser John Bolton, a man the regime once derided as "human scum and a bloodsucker."
This is a sharp change from its usual tirade of vitriol against the United States, especially at this time of year, when the American and South Korean militaries are practicing war drills on the southern half of the peninsula.
It hasn't been using one of its favorite phrases, about being a "strong nuclear power," since March 10 -- the day after Trump agreed to meet with Kim. Previously, the phrase has appeared in the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the Workers' Party, on a daily basis.
But others noted that today's announcement fits with North Korea's previous declarations that it had "completed" its nuclear and missile programs.
"This echoes what Kim Jong Un has already said about its nuclear program. Kim Jong Un is satisfied," said Melissa Hanham, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation in Monterey, Calif.
Last year was an exceptionally busy one for North Korea's nuclear and missile specialists. In September, North Korea detonated a huge nuclear device that it said was a hydrogen bomb.
This claim, experts said, was supported by the size of the blast, which caused a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in North Korea's northeast, an area not known for natural seismic activity.
Mount Mantap, the 7,200-foot-high peak under which North Korea has detonated all its nuclear bombs, visibly shifted during that last nuclear test, leading some analysts to wonder if it was suffering from "tired mountain syndrome" and was at risk of collapsing.
If that were true, closing the site would be something North Korea would do anyway, although perhaps without announcing it at such a fortuitous time, if at all.
Then, after launching several intercontinental ballistic missiles in the middle of the year, it fired an ICBM that it said put the entire U.S. mainland within reach and could carry a "super large heavy warhead."
With that test, North Korea declared that its "rocket development process has been completed."
Information for this article was contributed by Anna Fifield of The Washington Post and by Kim Tong-Hyung and Eric Talmadge of The Associated Press.
In this April 9, 2018, file photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
A Section on 04/21/2018
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