North Korea's nuclear pledge raises hopes - and scepticism

World leaders welcome promise to suspend missile tests, but doubts remain ahead of summit with Seoul this week

SEOUL • South Korea's preparations for its first summit with North Korea in more than a decade are in full swing this week, officials said yesterday, a day after the North's pledge to end its nuclear tests generated hope but also scepticism.

North Korea said on Saturday that it was suspending nuclear and missile tests and scrapping its nuclear test site, and instead pursuing economic growth and peace ahead of planned summits with South Korea and the United States.

The announcement was welcomed by leaders around the world, but some have expressed doubts about the North's intentions and South Korean President Moon Jae In will be under intense international scrutiny when he meets North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday.

Mr Kim's announcement did not include a commitment to scrap existing nuclear weapons and missiles, and there are doubts that he would ever give up the nuclear arsenal his country has been developing for decades.

Mr Moon, who welcomed Mr Kim's announcement as a major step towards denuclearisation, is making the summit his sole focus this week, staying in the presidential Blue House to prepare for it, with no outside engagements, a Blue House official said yesterday.

South Korea's presidential security service met officials from the military as well as the United Nations Command on Saturday to discuss security at the border truce village of Panmunjom, where the inter-Korean summit will take place, the official said.

For the past few weeks, South Korea has been renovating Peace House, on its side of Panmunjom, to prepare for the summit with Mr Kim, who will be the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South since the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Today, the two Koreas will hold another round of working-level talks at the Tongil Pavilion on the North Korean side of Panmunjom to discuss protocol, security and media coverage of the summit.

Mr Moon now has a direct phone link with Mr Kim on his office desk, instead of having to communicate through a hotline at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, which had been the main channel of communication between the two sides over the Winter Olympics in February. The two men are expected to talk over the newly installed phone for the first time this week, before the summit, South Korea said last Friday.

Senior US diplomat for East Asia Susan Thornton called North Korea's latest announcement "a very positive step" as she started a three-day visit to Seoul yesterday, which will include meetings with South Korea's Foreign Minister as well as its top nuclear negotiator.

"We are going to be doing a lot of close coordination with South Korea, allies and partners this week," the Yonhap news agency quoted her as saying.

Mr Kim is expected to meet US President Donald Trump late next month or in early June, the first meeting between sitting leaders of the two countries.

Dr Cheong Seong Chang, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute think-tank, said a firm commitment to denuclearise could not be expected before negotiations with the United States began.

"Kim cannot give up everything at once. What is clear is that he is showing his earnest willingness to pave the way for smooth negotiations," Dr Cheong said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2018, with the headline 'North Korea's nuclear pledge raises hopes - and scepticism'. Print Edition | Subscribe