Donald Trump praises Kim Jong-un denuclearization pledge: ‘Tremendous progress’

September 20, 2018

A new pledge by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to allow international inspectors to observe the closing of a key missile test site and his vow to consider destroying a major nuclear complex drew swift praise from President Trump on Wednesday but also triggered fresh skepticism among U.S. hard-liners who say Mr. Kim is still far from proving he is ready to abandon his nuclear arsenal.

The North Korean leader appeared to break new ground in a joint statement with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a three-day summit in Pyongyang, but his main pledge on denuclearization came with a vague and potentially vast condition: He will dismantle the North’s infamous Yongbyon nuclear facility only if the U.S. takes unspecified corresponding measures toward peace.

With speculation swirling over what those measures might be some say Mr. Kim wants all U.S. troops removed from South Korea Mr. Trump chose to focus on the upside. He told reporters that the North Korean leader’s overtures show “tremendous progress” and provide a fresh boost to negotiations that critics had claimed were all but dead.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. “is prepared to engage immediately in negotiations to transform” U.S.-North Korean relations, with the goal of completing North Korea’s denuclearization by January 2021, a date Mr. Kim introduced in earlier talks.

Mr. Pompeo said he invited North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho to meet in New York next week at the United Nations General Assembly gathering of world leaders.

The positive remarks sharply increased the odds of a second summit between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim in the near future to follow up on their initial meeting in Singapore in June.

But neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Pompeo indicated whether the U.S. was willing to offer concessions or take any “corresponding measures” requested by Mr. Kim. To the contrary, the secretary of state suggested that such measures were never on the table when the North Korean leader broadly agreed to denuclearize after a historic June summit with Mr. Trump in Singapore.

Regional analysts generally agreed that the Pyongyang summit this week has produced far more tangible progress than two others Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon held over the past eight months that used only vague language.

Buffer zones

While uncertainties over denuclearization loom large, defense chiefs from North and South Korea announced Wednesday that they had agreed to establish buffer zones along their land and sea borders to prevent accidental clashes. The agreement is a key step toward what officials from both sides say they hope will eventually become a peace treaty officially ending the long-frozen Korean War.

The defense chiefs also agreed to withdraw 11 guard posts from the Demilitarized Zone by December and to establish a no-fly zone above the military demarcation line that bisects the two Koreas that will apply to planes, helicopters and drones.

But some U.S. analysts argued that North Korea remains far from delivering on any major denuclearization steps that hard-line Trump advisers say Pyongyang must take before Washington eases sanctions or considers taking American forces out of South Korea.

Analysts note that Mr. Kim has made no commitment to provide a list of all North Korean nuclear facilities and an inventory of his nuclear weapons. The North Korean leader also has not agreed to any step-by-step timelines for closing the facilities let alone a date by which international inspectors will be allowed into North Korea to assess progress or discover violations.

“There appears to be much euphoria over the Pyongyang summit agreement, but we need to keep cool heads and discern how sincere is Kim Jong-un and how much he is supporting his strategy of ‘divide and conquer,’” said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Special Forces colonel and analyst on North Korea with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

The slowness with which Mr. Kim is moving on denuclearization suggests the North Korean leader may believe he can drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, a longtime North Korean diplomatic goal, Mr. Maxwell said in an interview Wednesday.

Mr. Kim’s promise to allow international inspectors to monitor the dismantling of North Korea’s Tongchang-ri missile and satellite launch facility is “not much of a concession,” he said, because U.S. national security insiders are far more concerned about other aspects of Pyongyang’s missile arsenal.

Tongchang-ri, said Mr. Maxwell, is a “liquid-fueled launch facility, which means it’s very easy to observe preparations for a launch of a missile in contrast to solid-fueled mobile missile launchers that really are a threat to the United States because they can be driven around to different launch locations.

“What we want to see is North Korea account for those mobile launchers and eliminate them,” he said. “But they’re hiding in underground facilities right now.”

The North has been sending some mixed signals of its own. The state newspaper on the eve of the Moon-Kim summit accused the Trump administration of “stubbornly insisting” that the North move first to dismantle its nuclear weapons while failing to discuss a formal peace declaration “which it had already pledged.”

“The fact that North Korea says it will let in inspectors at all is positive,” Mr. Maxwell said. “But what needs to happen and what hasn’t happened so far is a complete declaration of all their nuclear sites and materials and the allowance of inspections of both.”

Until that happens, he said, “we really shouldn’t be duped into thinking the North Koreans are sincere.”

‘A land of peace’

Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon stood side by side after a closed-door meeting in Pyongyang on Wednesday and declared to a group of North and South Korean reporters that they had taken a major step toward peace. They took no questions.

“We have agreed to make the Korean Peninsula a land of peace that is free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threat,” Mr. Kim said at a guesthouse where Mr. Moon is staying. “The road to our future will not always be smooth, and we may face challenges and trials we can’t anticipate, but we aren’t afraid of headwinds because our strength will grow as we overcome each trial based on the strength of our nation.”

The two leaders earlier smiled and chatted as they walked down a hallway and into a meeting room. Just one year ago, South Korea was in the midst of high-stakes brinkmanship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim after a period of increased North Korean nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

Mr. Moon, who has since emerged as the deft facilitator of the diplomatic opening between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, now faces increasing pressure from Washington to demonstrate concrete results from his outreach to the North.

China, which borders North Korea and is its most important ally, is also closely monitoring developments. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday that Beijing noted the positive effects of the Moon-Kim meeting on easing military tensions and promoting peace talks and the denuclearization process.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has maintained that he and Mr. Kim have a solid relationship, and both leaders have expressed interest in a follow-up summit to their meeting in June in Singapore. North Korea has been demanding a declaration formally ending the Korean War, which was stopped in 1953 by a cease-fire, but neither Mr. Moon nor Mr. Kim mentioned it as they read the joint statement in Pyongyang.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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