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(News Focus) Cautious optimism rises over N.K.'s decision to suspend tests, close nuclear site

2018/04/21 11:07

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By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, April 21 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's decision to stop missile and nuclear tests, and to shut down its nuclear test site, signals a serious push to create a favorable atmosphere before its back-to-back summits with South Korea and the United States, experts said Saturday.

Analysts saw the move as a possible first serious step toward renouncement of its nuclear and missile development programs, a key agenda item to be discussed during the upcoming summits.

Earlier in the day, North Korea announced that the country will suspend nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and shut down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site located in the northern area of the reclusive country.

The decision was made at the plenary meeting of the central committee of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), in which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un unveiled a major policy shift.

"A freeze on the North's nuclear program should involve suspension of missile and nuclear tests as well as a stop to its nuclear activities at the Yongbyon nuclear complex," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said. "The announced measures could be construed as the beginning of a nuclear freeze."

   South Korea and North Korea are set to hold their summit on the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjom on April 27. The leaders of the U.S. and the North are also planning to hold their unprecedented summit talks either in May or early June.

The latest decision is significant in that they have made official the suspension of such activities, which also came without any preconditions for doing so.

Last month, North Korea made it clear to the U.S. through South Korean envoys visiting Washington that it will suspend provocations as long as dialogue continues.

Punggye-ri is also a symbolic site for the North's nuclear development history in that it is where all six of its nuclear tests since 2006 have been conducted. The North's latest and most powerful nuclear test was conducted in September last year.

Shutting down such a high-profile nuclear test site could be seen as a testament to the North's seriousness in its talks on denuclearization. It is seen as part of efforts to possibly carry out "concrete" action, which was strongly requested by the U.S. as a precondition for going ahead with the proposed summit between the two countries.

As the North came out with proposals for talks after a long period of isolation caused by its repeated nuclear and missile provocations, many outsiders, including U.S. officials, suspected it as a gambit to buy time for its weapons programs and also ease the crippling multi-layered sanctions against its economy.

The vow to close the nuclear site and halt missile and nuclear tests seems to ease the concerns at least for now.

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed North Korea's latest decision, tweeting, "This is very good news for North Korea and the World - big progress! Look forward to our Summit."

   The relatively quick response from Washington spawns speculation that there might have been behind-the-door consultations between the two countries on that matter, given Mike Pompeo, Trump's new secretary of state nominee, made a visit to the North and met with the North's leader earlier this month.

Some critics cautioned against attaching excessive significance to the North's latest steps, reminding that the North has clearly announced the completion of its nuclear armament before, which, if true, does not necessitate any more nuclear tests.

The North declared the completion of its nuclear armament in November, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reaffirmed the achievement in his New Year's address, raising speculation that Pyongyang might put more emphasis now on economic development.

"This comes after it has been reported that the some parts of the nuclear site were damaged in the previous nuclear test. Also at a time when the North has already declared competition of its nuclear armament, there is no need for Pyongyang to carry out additional nuclear tests," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.

"The point here is that the North has completed its nuclear objective, signifying that now is time for economic development," he added.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, offered a somewhat different point of view, calling it still meaningful in that the North announced a halt to its ICBM tests despite what many see as its incomplete development of relevant technologies.

ICBMs are a major threat especially to Washington as they are seen as a key delivery tool that could bring the North's nuclear warheads to targets in the continental U.S. The North last tested what is presumed to be an ICBN in late November.

"Experts both in South Korea and the U.S. still believe that the North has not completed its ICBM capability and needs more missile tests to get it done," he said. "Therefore, the North's decision not to carry out more ICBM tests could be interpreted as a willingness to give up its objective of completing the missile capability, which surely is welcome news, in particular, for the U.S. government."

   kokobj@yna.co.kr

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