North Korea has announced in the full session of the Korean Worker’s Party that it will dismantle the Poonggyeri nuclear testing grounds and focus on rebuilding the country’s economy.
A voluntary announcement of such concessions prior to any negotiations was unimaginable for any predecessors of Kim Jong-Un. Although the decision on the dismantling of testing grounds was reached long before the current step, North Korea had failed to uphold that promise as nuclear tests continued on other grounds.
Now, with Kim continuing to make unconventional arrangements, it should be questioned whether the announcement is actually significant and is a major step towards denuclearization.
The ameliorated relationship between South and North Korea is gaining much attention. Kim had agreed to send the Olympics team to Pyongchang in February, and the two countries have subsequently exchanged cultural performance teams and have in unity sung “our hope is reunification.”
However, such “spring” in the peninsula is not new. Rather, the Koreas’ relationship had been even better in the past. The 2000 and 2007 inter-Korean talks had displayed even more unconventionality, with South Korean President Roh Muhyeon taking the land route to reach Pyongyang and discussing such issues as cultural exchange, establishment of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, and the nuclear weapons problem.
Pyongyang was proactive in tackling this issue in 2007, just as it was in every inter-Korean talks. In 1992, the two sides even issued a Joint Denuclearization Statement. Nevertheless, each of these seemingly progressive steps toward reconciliation was set back by repeated provocations from North Korea.
So far, North Korea has adhered to the strategy known as the Hwajeonyangmyeon Strategy, where one prepares for war while talking about peace. Accordingly, the South Korean public has begun to see the progress in relations with North Korea as obsolete. That is why North Korea’s preemptive decision to dismantle the nuclear testing grounds deserves only reserved welcome.
From this point of view, Kim’s strategy may be to differentiate his course of action to simply achieve credibility. In fact, Kim Jong-Un’s statements do not signify any change toward denuclearization itself. The North Korean leader has only mentioned that he would stop any further nuclear tests but did not explain how he will handle the nuclear weapons Pyongyang already possesses.
Kim’s suspension of further nuclear tests does signify that North Korea will strive to be a responsible nuclear power but should not be over-interpreted as a denuclearization statement.
Of course, considering North Korea’s hardline position since Kim came to power, such recent amenability is to be welcomed with arms wide open. Yet, all concerned states should not be too optimistic or credulous as Pyongyang had been even more agreeable before, making multiple joint statements on peace and denuclearization. Nevertheless, these advancements ended up being simple statements with no verifiable action.
Moreover, if North Korea is indeed, after deceiving its neighboring countries multiple times, willing to effectively work toward denuclearization, South Korea and the United States must now worry about what they would have to give in return for such concessions.
North Korea’s “co-pursuit for economy and nuclear weapons” has been a core principle of Pyongyang’s leadership so far, and it seemed that North Korea would sacrifice anything to make this policy line come true. If Kim is willing to surrender such vital capabilities, the cost may be far beyond expectations.
Therefore, under full acknowledgment of the positive prospects of Kim’s recent amenability, his statement on suspension of further nuclear tests should only deserve a reserved welcome.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.