TOKYO — North Korea’s announcement Saturday that it would stop firing missiles and detonating nuclear bombs, and would even close its nuclear test site, prompted a wave of strong reactions.
There was surprise at the sudden, superficially positive move from Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader who has delighted in shaking his fist at the United States over the course of the six-plus years he’s been at the helm.
There was deep skepticism that Kim, having invested so much of his claim to the leadership of the nuclear program, would be willing to give it up so easily. Not to mention the fact that North Korea has reneged on every denuclearization agreement it has signed over the past quarter-century.
And there was an outpouring of support — in conservative circles at least — for President Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach to dealing with North Korea.
There are still many questions to be answered, and some of the answers will become clearer over the next week, with Kim set to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday for a summit that will set the stage for a face-to-face meeting between Kim and Trump in late May or early June.
But for now, it’s striking that previously belligerent North Korea has acted to unequivocally set the right mood for those summits.
“Among North Korean unilateral concessions ahead of summits with South Korea and the United States, this is as good as it gets,” Patrick McEachern, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington and author of a book on North Korea’s institutional politics, said of Saturday’s announcement.
Kim declared that because North Korea had “completed” its nuclear weapons, it “will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles” effective immediately, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
In the outside world, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said the statement was a “meaningful step forward,” and Trump tweeted that it represented “big progress.”
The fact that Trump tweeted about North Korea’s announcement soon after it was made led some analysts to wonder if he’d had advance warning that it was coming, a signal that the back channel between Washington and Pyongyang is working.
But the announcements made no mention of giving up the nuclear program, or stopping firing the medium-range missiles that can reach Japan.
Still, analysts pointed out that freezing the program was a much better reality than the one that unfolded last year, when North Korea conducted a huge nuclear test and fired several missiles capable of reaching the mainland United States.
“Do the North Koreans think they’ve achieved the technical level they needed, and that has translated into political confidence? Maybe, although they could just be saying it,” said Naoko Aoki, who covered the 2005 denuclearization deal and its unraveling for Kyodo News.
“Either way, I think the development is still positive,” she said.
McEachern, who worked on North Korean affairs at the State Department, agreed. “The United States has sought for a decade a demonstration of North Korea’s sincerity on denuclearization, and Kim Jong Un is offering important, albeit completely reversible, concessions.”
This is a major diplomatic test for Kim, who inherited the leadership of North Korea when he was just 27 and who spent his first six years at the totalitarian helm inside the country, presiding over astonishingly fast progress in the nuclear and missile programs.
Young in a society that values age and untested by battle in a system espousing a “military first” approach, Kim has used the nuclear program and North Korea’s ascension into the elite club of nuclear-armed states as a source of legitimacy.
“Kim Jong Un feels empowered to sit at the same table as Donald Trump precisely because the United States does understand the extent of its weapons capabilities,” said Darcie Draudt, a North Korea researcher at Johns Hopkins University.
The regime’s propaganda constantly tells North Koreans, who have no other legal source of news, that they live in a “strong and prosperous” nuclear power. That raises serious doubts about how Kim could give up the program and still claim to be protecting North Korea’s 25 million impoverished citizens.
After Kim inherited the totalitarian regime from his father at the end of 2011, he formulated a “dual push” policy under which North Korea would pursue nuclear weapons and economic development at the same time.
Now that he claims to have achieved the first — his regime last year boasted of building a hydrogen bomb and a missile to carry it to the U.S. mainland — he appears to be turning to the economy.
“Our goal is to activate the overall national economy and put it on an upward spiral track,” Kim told a meeting of the powerful central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, according to Saturday’s KCNA report.
In 2016, at the first party congress since before he was born, Kim personally set out an ambitious five-year economic plan that he would struggle to achieve at the best of times, let alone at a time of crippling international sanctions imposed in response to his nuclear program.
South Korea’s progressive president will probably push for sanctions relief as a way to encourage the diplomatic process, analysts say.
“Moon is eager to ratchet down tensions with the North and increase humanitarian exchanges, and Trump is eager to make a deal,” Draudt said.
China and Russia, which never liked the sanctions, will probably push for some easing, too.
What strikes Laura Rosenberger, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States who worked on North Korea policy in the Obama White House, most about all these surprising developments is how Kim is in the driver’s seat.
“He proposed the delegation that went to the Olympics; he proposed the inter-Korean summit and the meeting with Trump; he finally went to China after many entreaties from Xi Jinping,” she said. “Kim Jong Un is reading the chess board and deciding where he wants to put the pieces.”
The Kim regime appears to be doing its homework on Trump. North Korean officials have read Trump-related books and they have his tweets as they construct a game plan for the summit.
Rosenberger said North Korea’s top officials know that Trump is particularly eager to chalk up personal achievements.
“So to me, the statement is trying to line up a favorable environment for that. He’s trying to butter up Trump in a very theatrical way and set him up for thinking it’s a win,” she said.
While many analysts worry that Kim might be able to pull the wool over Trump’s eyes and strike another deal that North Korea has no intention of honoring, the fact that both sides are able to head into the summit claiming to be in strong negotiating positions is a good thing, said McEachern of the Wilson Center.
“North Korea is claiming victory in its nuclear policy, while the United States is claiming victory in its maximum-pressure policy,” he said. “Even if these are very different narratives, it’s a good place to be because you don’t want either side feeling like they’re losing. You want a win-win.”