North Korea’s pledge to halt nukes holds new promise — and peril
North Korea’s announcement Friday that it’s immediately halting nuclear and missile tests — and even plans to shutter its main nuclear test facility — added serious momentum to high-level talks and a historic upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.
It’s also a stark reminder, however, of how diplomatically deft — and willing to take risks — the Trump administration and its Asian allies will have to be in order to turn the peace overtures of a notoriously untrustworthy regime into something lasting. There is still a significant gap between what North Korea has done and what Washington considers non-negotiable: A verifiable commitment from Pyongyang to give up its outlawed weapons for good under the watchful eye of international inspectors.
Story Continued Below
“As for the foreplay getting to the summit, I would give the Trump administration credit,” former Secretary of Defense William Perry said in an interview following the announcement. “But the North Koreans are going in from a position of strength. They have built their nuclear deterrent. They are not going to give that up lightly.”
Trump responded quickly to the announcement late Friday on Twitter, calling the pledge “big progress” and saying he is looking forward to the first-ever summit between American and North Korean leaders. That summit has yet to be scheduled but the White House says could take place as early as next month.
Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are also expected to hold a rare face-to-face meeting next week as part of the recent flurry of diplomatic activity after months of worrisome military threats — including between Kim and Trump.
The North Korean announcement comes after a series of breakthroughs in recent weeks, including a secret meeting between Kim and CIA Director and secretary of state-designate Mike Pompeo.
The announcement is also the latest in a series public concessions Pyongyang has made to set the stage for more high-level negotiations. Pyongyang recently asserted it will not demand that the United States remove its troops from South Korea as a precondition to giving up its nuclear program — in effect dropping a key obstacle that has stymied diplomatic efforts for decades. The North Korean government has also said it does not expect crippling economic sanctions to be lifted immediately.
“What we have gotten into here is a little bit of a peace race,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a leading disarmament group. “Both leaders clearly want to see this summit succeed.”
But now comes the hard part, according to a number of leading North Korea and arms control experts.
They agreed that Pyongyang is likely to seek historic concessions in return for its promises – including some that may be difficult for the Trump administration to swallow.
Some likely demands include a peace treaty with the United States to replace the fragile armistice still in place from the Korean War, full diplomatic relations with Washington, and major commitments on trade and investment that Kim is seeking to resurrect the communist nation’s failing economy.
The most difficult hurdle will be determining how North Korea’s full disarmament would be achieved — and that it can be trusted to stick to an agreement given its long history of breaking its word.
“They have conducted six tests and probably have a working [nuclear] device,” said Kimball. “The question is how does the Trump Administration, South Korea, and Japan solidify that pledge so it is not just a test site closure but a permanent commitment” to disarm?
“What is important,” he added, “is that the two sides continue to prepare the ground for the summit to create a framework for follow on negotiations on this step by step for de-nuclearization.”
That won’t be easy, said Perry.