SEOUL, South Korea -- The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations welcomed North Korea's announcement that it has suspended nuclear and long-range missile tests, and praised the way the U.N. Security Council "really came together" in order to achieve that.
Speaking at an informal working meeting of the Security Council ambassadors in southern Sweden on Saturday, Nikki Haley said pressure and sanctions coming from the U.N. enabled the isolation of North Korea "until they had a good behavior, and now we are seeing they want to come to the table."
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters in Sweden that he was optimistic about North Korea's decision, saying that "the path is open for the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced the suspension of testing during a meeting of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea's central committee. The dictator made no mention of giving up the country's nuclear stockpile, variously estimated to contain between 20 and 100 warheads. He said a freeze was possible because North Korea had "verified the completion of nuclear weapons" and was now a full-fledged nuclear weapons state.
The announcement, which came weeks before an expected U.S.-North Korean meeting, included a pledge by Kim that he would "never use nuclear weapons unless there is a nuclear threat" or "transfer nuclear weapons or nuclear technology" to outsiders.
There are still many questions to be answered, and some of the answers will become clearer over the next week, with Kim set to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday for talks that will set the stage for a face-to-face meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in late May or early June.
Analysts pointed out that freezing the program is a much better reality than the one that unfolded last year, when North Korea conducted a huge nuclear test and fired several missiles capable of reaching the mainland United States.
More than two weeks ago, CIA Director Mike Pompeo flew to Pyongyang for secret talks on ending North Korea's nuclear program. That same week, however, U.S. weapons experts were studying a construction site near the Chinese border for clues that North Korean officials might be moving in the opposite direction.
Analysts pored over satellite images of the northern city of Chongsu, keying in on a large, red-roofed building that some experts suspect is a factory for making an ultrapure form of graphite. The material is essential for making nuclear reactors of the kind North Korea uses domestically, and, according to a new report, Pyongyang has recently attempted to sell the same nuclear-grade graphite to customers overseas.
The CIA has declined to comment about the mysterious building, the true purpose of which remains uncertain. But the questions over the construction project underscore a key difficulty in evaluating North Korea's new proposals to freeze or give up portions of its nuclear program: North Korea has a long history of concealing illicit weapons activity from foreign eyes.
According to weapons experts, the suspected graphite production facility in Chongsu could potentially help North Korea achieve multiple goals, allowing its weapons program to quietly advance while creating an additional source of badly needed export revenue.
The site was identified in a report released late Friday by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington nonprofit that researches nuclear weapons programs.
David Albright, the institute's founder and a former U.N. weapons inspector, said the facility came to light partly because of a glossy marketing brochure that North Korea has been providing to select customers offering to sell nuclear-grade graphite. The black mineral, when purified through a manufacturing process, is used in making nuclear reactors and missile components, in addition to other industrial applications.
With guidance from an unidentified "knowledgeable official," the institute's experts were able to spot the suspected facility inside a guarded industrial zone near the banks of the Yalu River.
A sequence of satellite images taken over seven years shows its construction on the grounds of a defunct coal-burning power plant, which was dismantled and replaced by modern industrial buildings "surrounded by a new security perimeter wall with a security checkpoint building" at the front entrance, the institute's report states.
While the report offers no concrete proof that the facility is intended for making nuclear-grade graphite, Albright cites multiple strands of evidence pointing to North Korea's interest in expanding its production of the material.
Pyongyang already possesses one graphite factory, and in recent years, North Korea's atomic energy agencies have acquired new equipment and dispatched scientists to China for advanced training in producing the substance.
"This example illustrates why the United States needs to obtain a well-defined, verified commitment from North Korea not to proliferate nuclear weapons, fissile materials, and nuclear and nuclear-related goods," Albright said.
Regardless of the building's purpose, independent weapons experts say it is crucial that North Korea allows access to such facilities. Without such transparency, it would be difficult to take Kim's pledges seriously, analysts say.
"There is good reason to be skeptical, or at least realistic," Jon Wolfsthal, a former senior director for arms control in the Obama administration's National Security Council, said in a Twitter post hours after the freeze was announced. "It is, after all, North Korea."
FOCUS ON ECONOMY
Young in a society that values age and untested by battle in a system espousing a "military first" approach, Kim has used the nuclear program and North Korea's ascension into the elite club of nuclear-armed states as a source of legitimacy.
"Kim Jong Un feels empowered to sit at the same table as Donald Trump precisely because the United States does understand the extent of its weapons capabilities," said Darcie Draudt, a North Korea researcher at Johns Hopkins University.
The regime's propaganda constantly tells North Koreans, who have no other legal source of news, that they live in a "strong and prosperous" nuclear power. That raises serious doubts about how Kim could give up the program and still claim to be protecting North Korea's 25 million impoverished citizens.
After Kim inherited the totalitarian regime from his father at the end of 2011, he formulated a "dual push" policy under which North Korea would pursue nuclear weapons and economic development at the same time.
Now that he claims to have achieved the first, he appears to be turning to the economy.
"Our goal is to activate the overall national economy and put it on an upward spiral track," Kim said Saturday in his announcement, according to the Korean Central News Agency report.
Skepticism prevails on whether North Korea could emulate the kind of economic success that South Korea has achieved. And history has shown that overseas investors can suffer with no recourse if they fail in their risk assessment.
North Korea is viewed as a wild card and frontier market that could offer rewards for the business community because of its central location in a booming region encompassing China, Japan and South Korea.
"Everything about North Korea spells potential," said Kim Young-hui, a North Korean defector studying at Seoul's government-owned Korea Development Bank. "North Korea can be a bridge linking the peninsula to as far as Europe via China. Imagine how much cargo could flow on that Asian highway."
North Korea has struggled to revive its economy since a famine in the mid-1990s, while South Korea has taken off as an economic powerhouse. The Songun, or military-first policy, charted by Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, also dried up economic resources that otherwise would have benefited the economy.
The nation also has a labor force that remains largely untapped. South Korea has shown that a business model combining its capital and know-how with North Korean labor can work when it ran an industrial park in the North Korean border city of Gaeseong.
That complex closed in 2016 during military tensions. The challenge of educating North Koreans with Western business practices and technology remains daunting for any investors who may want to start similar projects.
North Korea's isolation has essentially rendered South Korea as an island in the world of commerce. If the North opens, it could win transportation fees by allowing South Korea to export its goods to the rest of the world by land. Moon has already suggested that his country could receive gas supplies from Russia through North Korea while cargo flows to Europe.
That would mean building roads and other infrastructure in North Korea.
Much about North Korea's economic development is easier said than done. Kim's promise to stop nuclear tests is a far cry from U.S. and South Korean demands that all nuclear programs be rolled back. Kim has said nuclear arms safeguard his regime.
It took China, a role model for North Korea, more than two decades to accelerate its growth after Deng Xiaoping decided to open up the country. And he didn't have to worry about the survival of his nation. Kim on the other hand fears the lack of a nuclear deterrent -- and a flow of information that could turn his people against him.
Information for this article was contributed by Sam Kim of Bloomberg News; by Joby Warrick and Anna Fifield of The Washington Post; and by staff members of The Associated Press.
North Koreans gather Saturday on Pyongyang’s newly built Mirae Scientists Street to watch an announcement about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s proposal to halt nuclear and missile tests.
Christians pray for peace Saturday at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea.
A Section on 04/22/2018
Print Headline: Kim's nuke statement heartens U.S. officials