Many North Koreans are highly skeptical of a decision by the regime to abandon its nuclear tests and missile development in the run-up to leader Kim Jong Un’s meetings with his counterparts from archenemies South Korea and the United States, sources inside the country said.
The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the ruling an Workers’ Party, and North Korean Central Television announced on April 21 that the regime was freezing nuclear tests and closing test sites, a source from North Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean service.
“According to the announcement, [North Korea] no longer needs to conduct nuclear tests or test ballistic rocket missiles, and the nuclear test sites in the northern area have completed their missions,” said the source who declined to be named. “Residents who heard the news find it odd.”
“The Workers’ Party has been propagandizing for decades that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea can maintain its dignity with nuclear power,” he said, using the country’s official name.
“If it suddenly halts nuclear development, then we wonder if the state has decided to submit to U.S. and international pressure,” he said. “They [Workers’ Party members] say it [the decision] is to improve people’s lives, but don’t they say that all the time?”
Some citizens who do not read the Rodong Sinmun or have access to state television are not aware of the announcement, he added.
The news comes days before Kim meets South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a village just south of the Demilitarized Zone, the official border between the two countries, which are still technically at war with each other. The meeting will be the third such summit between leaders of the two nations after the division of the Korean peninsula into North and South at the end of the Korean War (1950-53).
U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to meet with Kim in May or June to discuss their differences over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile program. That meeting will be the first summit between any North Korean leader and a U.S. president.
‘Peace depends on guns’
Under former leader Kim Jong Il, father of the current leader, the rogue regime invested in a nuclear weapons program even as up to 3 million North Koreans starved during the Great Famine and an accompanying economic crisis that occurred from 1994 to 1998.
“Even when hundreds of thousands were dying during the North Korean famine, the state invested in its nuclear program and rocket missiles, saying, ‘Peace depends on guns,’” the source said.
“There was no concern for people’s lives,” he said. “The party repeated its false propaganda for decades telling residents that we all will be having ‘rice and soup with meat’ and that we should ‘go along the rough roads with a smile,’” the source said.
North Korea is now grappling with the impact of United Nations sanctions, backed by its longtime ally China, as punishment for its development and launch of a ballistic missile that Pyongyang said is capable of striking the U.S. mainland.
The sanctions place caps on the import of crude oil, and on refined oil products, such as diesel and kerosene that are crucial to North Korea’s economy. They also impose a ban on the export of a range of products, including food, machinery, electrical equipment, wood, earth, and stones, to other countries.
“The lives of the people are getting worse because of China and the international sanctions,” the source said. “I doubt if the international sanctions will soon be eased on account of the nuclear test freeze and nuclear test site closings.”
‘Enjoying better lives’
A Pyongyang resident who recently visited Dandong in northeastern Chin’s Liaoning province, raised doubts that Pyongyang could totally abandon its nuclear weapons program.
“I am not sure if our country can seriously give up the nuclear program, but it’s true that we desperately need the immediate easing of sanctions and the resumption of foreign investment,” said the source who declined to be named.
“Many Pyongyang citizens say that if we had not withdrawn from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons [NPT] in 2003, and that if we had received a light-water reactor and heavy fuel oil support from the U.S. and from the international community, we would be enjoying better lives.”
Signatories of the international treaty agree to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and work towards nuclear disarmament.
When North Korea withdrew from the 1968 treaty, under which it was prohibited from manufacturing nuclear weapons, it intensified the nuclear-weapons crisis on the Korean peninsula as the country again began operating its nuclear facilities.
When Pyongyang previously announced an intention to withdrawal from the NPT, Washington worked out an agreement with the country in 1994 under which North Korea agreed to temporarily freeze the operation and construction of nuclear reactors suspected of being part of a covert weapons program in exchange for two nuclear power reactors and fuel oil supplies from the U.S.
The agreement fell apart in 2002.
A major diplomatic effort known as the Six-Party Talks — launched in August 2003 by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S. — initially hit breakthroughs when Pyongyang said it would abandon its nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and return to the NPT.
But the talks collapsed in 2009 following disagreements over verification and a widely condemned North Korean rocket launch.
“Pyongyang citizens these days are well aware of the fact that if we give up our nuclear program and if we interact with the U.S. or South Korea, it will make us an economically stronger country,” the source from Pyongyang said.
“But will the country’s highest dignitary [Kim Jong Un] ever truly admit South Korea’s development and make a decision to begin North-South exchanges?” he asked.
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korea Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.