North Korea has said it will end its tests of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and shut down its nuclear test site, in a dramatic development ahead of a much-anticipated meeting between its leader, Kim Jong-un, and Donald Trump.
The suspensions went into immediate effect on Saturday, according to state-run KCNA news agency.
The US president greeted the news in a tweet: “This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress!”
The news comes less than a week before Kim meets the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, for a summit in the demilitarised zone that divides the peninsula.
South Korea’s presidential office welcomed the announcement as “meaningful progress” towards denuclearisation. “It will create a very positive environment for the success of the upcoming inter-Korean and North-US summits,” said a statement.
The move goes some way towards meeting US demands for denuclearisation, as Pyongyang and Washington work towards agreement on when and where Kim will meet Trump for historic talks that barely seemed possible just a few months ago.
KCNA quoted Kim as saying that North Korea should focus on economic development now that it had achieved its aim of becoming a nuclear state. “The whole party and the whole nation should now focus on the development of the socialist economy,” he was quoted as saying. “This is the party’s new strategic policy line.”
He added: “A fresh climate of detente and peace is being created on the Korean peninsula and the region, and dramatic changes are being made in the international political landscape.”
The decision to suspend nuclear tests and missile launches came at a plenary meeting of the ruling party’s central committee, which had convened on Friday to discuss a “new stage” of policies – prompting speculation that the regime would move towards denuclearisation.
Kim told the meeting that the North’s development of nuclear weapons should be seen as a “great victory”.
“As the weaponisation of nuclear weapons has been verified, it is not necessary for us to conduct any more nuclear tests or test launches of mid- and long-range missiles or ICBMs. The northern nuclear test site has completed its mission,” he added, according to KCNA.
North Korea has conducted all six of its nuclear tests at Punggye-ri test site in the country’s north-east. It tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, while its last and most powerful test came last September.
Those tests, plus a string of missile launches ordered by Kim throughout 2017, at one point appeared to be taking the peninsula to the brink of conflict.
Some analysts greeted the North’s move with caution, noting that the regime had reneged on previous nuclear deals and that Saturday’s announcement did not mention shorter-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan and South Korea.
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, cautiously welcomed North Korea’s pledge. “We welcome it as a forward-looking move … but an important thing is whether the move will lead to the complete abandonment of missile and nuclear developments in a verifiable and irreversible manner,” Abe said. “We want to watch it closely.”
The Japanese defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, said he and the US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, had agreed during talks in Washington that any deal must include weapons with which North Korea could continue to threaten its neighbours. “This is not the time for Japan, the United States and the international community to ease pressure” on North Korea, Onodera said.
Japan’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, Taro Aso, added a note of scepticism. “[North Korea] has made a lot of promises and we paid money on the condition that they will give up [nuclear] experiment sites, but they continued,” Aso said in Washington.
Catherine Dill, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said a promise to end missile and nuclear tests “does not equate to the dismantlement of the nuclear and missile programmes”.
Dill added: “Perhaps this signals that North Korea is confident enough in its nuclear and missile programmes to concede testing while stringing along the prospect of verifiable dismantlement for years past Trump’s presidency.
“Verification is a complex, intricate process that requires much more negotiation and much more trust than is present at the moment. At this point, while I am optimistic, we must remember that North Korea can easily reverse course.”
Scott LaFoy, a Washington-based satellite imagery analyst focusing on ballistic missile and space technologies, said Kim’s comments should be seen as “the first part of a negotiation. It can be easily undone, but could also turn into the foundation of a deal. It shouldn’t be read as a concrete promise, it should be seen as the start of a complex discussion.
“This is a very positive first step towards arms control and maybe eventual denuclearisation. But, like with all positive first steps we’ve had in North Korea negotiations, it can still very easily reverse.”
The North’s quest to develop a deterrent against what it has long described as US hostility resulted in an extraordinary exchange of insults between Kim and Trump last September, and frequent warnings from Washington that it would not rule out military action to end Kim’s nuclear ambitions.
Saturday’s announcement came the day after a hotline between Kim and the South Korean president went live.
The hotline connects Moon’s desk at the presidential Blue House with North Korea’s state affairs commission, which is headed by Kim, Yonhap news agency said.
Earlier this week Moon, a liberal whose election in May raised hopes of an inter-Korea detente, said that Pyongyang had expressed a desire for the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula without attaching preconditions such as the withdrawal of US troops.
The two countries are due to hold a summit next Friday on the southern side of the demilitarised zone.
The meeting is to be followed in May or June by a meeting between Kim and Trump. The US president on Wednesday pledged to meet Kim “in the coming weeks” but said he was prepared to walk away if the talks were not fruitful.