Cautious optimism. That seems to be the name of the game as analysts start looking at the fine print of North Korea’s surprising statement that it would suspend nuclear tests and do away with a test site ahead of the summits planned with South Korea and the United States. The one thing that seems certain is that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has no intention to give up his country’s nuclear arsenal. He will, instead, get to the summits with what he sees as a victory under his belt: a clear recognition from global powers that North Korea is a nuclear nation.
Axios’ Mike Allen points out that the announcement appears to show Pyongyang has “learned the art of dealing with President Trump: Give him a win—or at least what he thinks is a win, or can spin as a win.” Victor Cha, who was seen as Trump’s contender to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea, pointed out that there really wasn’t much of a shit in North Korea’s statement. “They have already stated that they would halt all testing while in dialogue. This statement formalizes that promise,” he said. Plus, Cha, noted, the things North Korea says it is willing to discuss amounts to “all the trappings of a ‘responsible’ nuclear weapons state (which is what they ultimately wanted to be accepted as).”
Some analysts were quick to point out that we’ve been here before. Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at Tufts University, told the New York Times Pyongyang has long favored dramatic statements to confuse enemies without ever actually promising to give up its weapons. “History repeats itself as farce,” he said, adding: “Kim Jong-un’s ploys are unoriginal and rather lazy.” Shin Beomchul, a professor at the Korean National Diplomatic Academy, told Bloomberg that Kim’s comments amount to a “very carefully coordinated calculation to build hopes of the world that it’s open to changes that could possibly follow the summits.”
Others, however, have tried to emphasize the positive, saying that the mere emphasized that the way in which a previously belligerent Kim now seems willing to negotiate must be seen as a positive step. “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 told the Washington Post.
Christopher Green, a North Korea expert with the International Crisis Group, pointed out that even though North Korea’s announcement may not amount to much, it’s still something that shows movement in the right direction. “I don’t see how North Korean statement constitutes a step toward denuclearisation,” he tweeted. “It is a moratorium on testing, but recommits North Korea to nuclear weapons status.” Still, “that’s acceptable,” he noted.
Part of what is driving the cautious optimism is that Kim also seems to be ready to start placing a bigger emphasis on economic development and he may be willing to make concessions in exchange for growth. “We have looked only on the nuclear side of Kim Jong-un’s rule, trying hard not to look at the other side. He is ready to bargain away nuclear weapons for the sake of economic development,” said Lee Jong-seok, a former unification minister of South Korea. “If he were content with just feeding his people three meals a day, he would not give up his nuclear weapons.”
Kim is set to sit down with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday while the meeting with Trump is expected in late May or early June.