(CNN) — North Korea says its quest for nuclear weapons is “complete” and it “no longer needs” to test its weapons capability, a significant diplomatic gesture ahead of engagement with both South Korea and the United States.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Saturday that “under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests, mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in northern area has also completed its mission,” as quoted by the state-run KCNA news agency.
The announcement appears to signify a remarkable change in policy for Kim, following a relentless pursuit of nuclear and ballistic weapons as a means to ensure his regime’s survival.
It comes just one week before a meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and before a planned historic encounter between Kim and US President Donald Trump — and just weeks after the North Korean leader met Chinese President Xi Jinping on his first trip outside his country.
The US and South Korea welcomed the news, which they said was a sign of progress and a promising start to upcoming talks.
“North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site,” Trump tweeted. “This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress! Look forward to our Summit.”
‘New chapter’ for North Korea
A North Korea source told CNN that Kim has finally decided to open up a new chapter for his nation. Kim has committed himself to the path of denuclearization and will now focus solely on economic growth and improving the national economy, the source said.
The North Korean leader has realized the best path forward is to normalize relations with other countries, the source added. He is finally being recognized by the international community, and this is a historic, timely opportunity, the source said.
However, analysts stressed caution over Kim’s words, nothing that Pyongyang was likely to be seeking something in return.
“The announcement is significant, but you know, whether North Korea is truly serious remains to be seen,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA North Korea analyst.
“They might be looking for freeze for freeze deals. They are looking for sanctions relief. So what are we going to give for this freezing of tests?
“North Koreans never give out anything for free so they’ll be looking for something from us.”
CNN military analyst James Marks said that it was “phenomenal” that the test freeze could take place, but added that he was “hugely skeptical” of the North Korean regime’s intentions.
“I think what we’re really seeing is the pain of the economic sanctions has really begun to start chip away at his inner circle and that’s the key ingredient here.
“If Kim is himself feeling the pain, and if his inner circle, his elites are feeling the pain, then he’s going to start paying attention and I think that’s what we see.”
He added that the timing of the announcement, following his visit to Beijing, indicated that the Chinese leader had been influential in the policy change.
“Clearly what that was Kim coming to Xi, Xi giving him assurances — ‘look, you got to back up and you’ve got to stop doing certain things. I’ve got your back. You’re going to be OK. But your regime is going to be obliterated if you continue along this path.'”
Marks said that denuclearization is “probably not a possibility but what is, is this freeze and we’ll have to take it from there.”
The change in North Korea’s policy was announced to its citizens via state news agency KCNA. It published a list of six points that emphasized the country had achieved its nuclear objectives.
“We declare solemnly that we faithfully realized the nuclear weaponization” — The first point says the tests were carried out under its “byungjin” policy, a twofold strategy of investing in the economy and the nuclear program. Tests were carried out in sequential order to achieve the country’s aim.
“The nuclear test site in northern area will be discarded” — KCNA said as of Saturday North Korea will no longer conduct nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile tests, and to “ensure transparency” the test site would be closed.
“(It’s an) important process for global nuclear disarmament” — North Korea says it’ll work with the international community to halt nuclear testing worldwide.
“We will never use nuclear weapons unless there is a nuclear threat or nuclear provocation to our country” — Nor will North Korea transfer nuclear weapons and technology, KCNA said.
Commitment to “dramatically raise people’s lives” — Development of a “strong socialist economy” will become a priority for the country.
North Korea “will intensify close ties and dialogue” — The country says it’ll improve relations with neighboring countries and the international community to promote peace on the Korean peninsula and beyond.
Six nuclear tests
North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test last September deep underground at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, in North Hamgyong Province. The explosion created a magnitude-6.3 tremor, making it the most powerful weapon Pyongyang has ever tested.
At the time, Pyongyang claimed the device was a hydrogen bomb, a type of nuclear weapon that uses fusion instead of fission to increase the blast yield, or destructive power. It is also known as a thermonuclear bomb.
North Korea has worked for years to miniaturize a nuclear warhead so it can be fitted atop a long-range missile and survive the heat-intensive process of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
Last year, Pyongyang tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile it said could reach the entire US mainland, raising the threat that Kim could realistically follow through on his threat to target the US.
Historic summits planned
The decision to halt nuclear and missile testing comes just one week before the leaders of South and North Korea are due to meet at the demilitarized zone between the two countries.
The planned encounter follows months of warming relations since North Korean Kim Jong Un held out an olive branch during this year’s New Year’s speech.
The two countries started talking again for the first time in two years via a special phone line, and those talks led to North Korea’s participation in South Korea’s Winter Olympics.
Kim extended an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-In to go to Pyongyang, and the two agreed to meet next Friday, April 27, at the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries. Ahead of the talks, a hotline between the two capitals was reconnected Friday afternoon.
The upcoming face-to-face talks mark an extraordinary shift in relations that deteriorated even further in 2017 as Kim launched a barrage of missile tests and boasted of the success of his nuclear program.
Denuclearization is expected to be the focus of talks, as part of discussions to potentially move toward a peace treaty to formally end the Korean war. The Koreas signed armistice in 1953 that ended combat operations in the conflict but didn’t go as far as a peace agreement.
Earlier this week, Trump said he’d give his “blessing” for peace treaty — and said the upcoming talks were “a great chance to solve a world problem.”
Trump is due to meet Kim in late May or June at a location still to be decided. If the meeting goes ahead as planned it will be the first encounter between a sitting US President and North Korean leader.
Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, US CIA Director Mike Pompeo, laid the groundwork for the meeting with a secret trip to North Korea three weeks ago. His trip sent a message that both sides are serious about moving toward a solution to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula.