North-South Korean Summit Deal Appears to Revive Nuclear Diplomacy

kim-moon.jpg North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) react as they watch the large-scale gymnastic and artistic performance in Pyongyang, Sept. 19, 2018.

The leaders of North and South Korea reached a broad agreement Wednesday on denuclearization and missiles, winning plaudits from U.S. President Donald Trump but leaving difficult diplomacy and the question of Pyongyang’s demands on Washington for future rounds of talks.

In a joint statement after a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to destroy a major North Korean missile facilities and close the country's main nuclear complex. The offered North Korean moves were conditional on U.S. reciprocal action.

Speaking at a joint news conference in the North Korean capital, the two Korean leaders agreed to turn the peninsula into a "land of peace without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats."

Kim renewed promises to work toward the "complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" he had made to Moon earlier this year and at his June summit with Trump in Singapore.

Trump welcomed the developments in Pyongyang, which also included a host of inter-Korean agreements to deepen economic and cultural ties.

"We're making tremendous progress with respect to North Korea. Prior to becoming president, it looked like we were going to war with North Korea and now we have a lot of progress," Trump told reporters at the White House, according to news agency reports.

"A lot of tremendous things but very importantly no missile testing, no nuclear testing."

"The relationships, I have to tell you, at least on a personal basis, are very good. It is very much calmed down," Trump said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the Pyongyang agreement, saying he spoke with his North Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, and invited him to meet in New York next week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

"On the basis of these important commitments, the United States is prepared to engage immediately in negotiations to transform U.S.-DPRK relations," said Pompeo in a statement issued on Wednesday.

In addition to Pompeo's proposed meeting with Ri, "we have invited North Korean representatives to meet our Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, in Vienna, Austria at the earliest opportunity," the statement said.

"This will mark the beginning of negotiations to transform U.S.-DPRK relations through the process of rapid denuclearization of North Korea, to be completed by January 2021, as committed by Chairman Kim, and to construct a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula."

Stalled since Singapore

The pledges Kim and Moon made at their third summit this year were seen by analysts as breaking little new ground, but also as having the potential to revive nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, which have largely faltered since the summit in Singapore three months earlier.

“It seems there is a little progress, but we need to be very careful because North Korea has not taken any substantial denuclearization steps,” said Kim Chun-sik, a former South Korean vice minister of unification.

According to a joint statement signed by Kim and Moon, North Korea, which unilaterally stopped nuclear and missile tests after the Singapore summit in June, agreed to allow experts observe the closure of its missile engine testing site in Dongchang-ri, a facility used to test the North's intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Kim also expressed North Korea’s “readiness" to dismantle permanently its main nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, in response to as yet unspecified corresponding action from the United States, the statement said.

Pyongyang’s goals are thought to be to win relief from U.S.-driven international sanctions and an official end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended without a formal peace treaty.

“This is more commitment to do meaningful things in the indefinite future,” Robert Gallucci, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator with North Korea, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“Shutting down all facilities at their nuclear complex would be important, but that will only happen after the North and U.S. agree on what the U.S. will do in normalization steps or sanctions relief,” he added.

“This is not denuclearization. It is suggestive of denuclearization, but that's not much,” said Gallucci.

Arms control expert Gary Samore called the Pyongyang Summit pledges “modest but sufficient to move the US-DPRK denuclearization process forward.”

“It is hard to evaluate the DPRK commitment to dismantle nuclear facilities at Yongbyon because details need to be negotiated, such as what specific actions will be taken to permanently dismantle the facilities and what "corresponding measures" is the DPRK demanding from the U.S.” he told RFA.

'Not a defeated enemy state'

Kim and Moon also agreed to resume North-South economic cooperation, including reconnecting rail and road links and restarting a joint factory park in the border city of Kaesong and tours to the North's Mount Kumgang resort, the statement said.

Some of those projects could violate U.N. Security Council sanctions aimed at cutting off hard currency funds for Pyongyang's weapons programs.

“Due to the Pyongyang declaration, inter-Korean exchanges in the social and cultural arena could be more active, but we are also wondering how much further inter-Korean relations will be developed amid the difficulty of inter-Korean economic cooperation (because of the international sanctions against North Korea),” said Kim Chun-sik.

Kim also said he would visit Seoul in the near future, in what would be the first-ever visit to South Korean capital by a North Korean leader, and to bid to co-host the 2032 Summer Olympic Games.

Retired U.S. diplomat John Merrill, a former head of the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) Northeast Asia Division, expressed measure optimism about the latest pledges.

“Moon’s visit comes in the run-up to a possible second Kim-Trump summit.  The details of what North Korea is prepared to give will have to be worked out there,” he told RFA.

“If a Kim-Trump summit eventually leads to a shutdown of fissile material production at Yongbyon, I think that’s probably all we can reasonably expect for now,” added Merrill.

“North Korea is not a defeated enemy state and we cannot approach negotiations with it as if it were.  There has to be a process of diplomatic give and take,” he said.

Reported and translated by Hee Jung Yang for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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