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(LEAD) (News Focus) Kim Jong-un presents 'substantive' yet limited denuclearization steps

Politics 15:07 September 19, 2018

(ATTN: UPDATES with briefing by Moon's aide in paras 15-26; ADDS photo)
By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, Sept. 19, 2018 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un talked publicly about a nuclear-free Korea Wednesday in an unprecedented move and agreed to dismantle a key missile-testing site under the monitoring of international experts.

In his Pyongyang summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim also said his regime is willing to take additional denuclearization steps, depending on the Donald Trump administration's corresponding actions.

Kim's message is clear: he is serious about making the peninsula free of nuclear weapons, but it's still up to Washington.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shake hands each other after inking a joint statement on their Pyongyang summit talks on Sept. 19, 2018. (Joint Press Corps-Yonhap)

The third round of talks between Moon and Kim came amid widespread skepticism about Kim's commitment to denuclearization, widely regarded as vague.

Moon's first and foremost goal was to help revitalize the stalled process in the wake of the June 12 summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore.

The left-leaning president has tried to broker the resumption of full-fledged bargaining between the two sides.

In that sense, Moon's attempt this time is seen as a half success.

Speaking at a post-summit joint press briefing, Kim said they made a "firm commitment" to strive actively to turn Korea into a land of peace without nuclear weapons or threats.

It was the first time that he mentioned denuclearization in front of external media besides his written summit accords and messages conveyed via special envoys.

He agreed to permanently shut down an engine testing facility and launch pad at the Dongchang-ri missile test zone, also known as the Seohae test site, near the border with China.

It has played an important role in the North's development of long-range missiles.

Kim expressed the North's intention of pushing for additional measures, including the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear complex in Yongbyon, if the Trump administration takes "corresponding measures" in line with the June 12 Singapore summit accord.

The North is eager to have security assurances that begin with declaring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War. It argues it has already done enough: suspending nuclear and missile tests, dismantling a nuclear test site in Punggye-ri and sending American detainees back home.

It's unconfirmed whether Moon and Kim have struck other verbal agreements.

Moon's national security advisor Chung Eui-yong, speaking to reporters in the North's capital, said there were a number of discussions, as well, besides what's written in the deal but did not specify what they were.

A concrete summit feat is the North's decision to let the international community to observe the removal of the missile test facilities, he added, according to a pool report.

Also significant is Kim's confirmation of a plan, albeit conditional, to permanently switch off the Yongbon reactor, symbolic of the country's nuclear program, he said and his expectation that the Pyongyang-Washington dialogue would pick up on the basis of the Pyongyang agreement.

Pundits here agreed that it's quite meaningful itself for the leaders of the two Koreas to formally negotiate the nuclear issue and produce a result, whether big or small.

The North had long claimed it's a matter to be addressed bilaterally with the U.S., not the South.

"An accord like this between the leaders of South and North Korea, of course, contributes, to some extent, to progress in the denuclearization of North Korea. But it's questionable how much it will satisfy hawks in the U.S.," Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said.

Cho Sung-ryul, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, said Moon seems to have achieved the "maximum" of what he could do with regard to denuclearization, as Kim has sets his sights on a showdown with Trump.

Having effectively passed the ball to Trump through Moon once again, Kim is apparently keeping an ace up his sleeve.

What's unclear is whether Trump will be content with the Pyongyang agreement.

He issued an initial response on Twitter. He noted Kim agreed to "allow Nuclear inspections, subject to final negotiations, and to permanently dismantle a test site and launch pad in the presence of international experts."

His talk of nuclear inspections, not included in a public announcement, suggests he has rudimentary information on the outcome of Moon's third summit with Kim.

South Korean officials have yet to brief their American counterparts on details of it.

For Trump, Kim's promise to shut down a missile site is not new.

He announced earlier it was included in his Singapore deal with Kim and the North was "already destroying" it, although there was no talk of inviting international monitors.

Trump may pay more attention to Kim's agreement to visit Seoul "in the near future," probably by the end of this year.

The White House said it's working on another Trump-Kim meeting amid speculation that the North's leader may soon travel to New York or Washington D.C.

Meanwhile, the Moon-Kim agreement came on the 13th anniversary of the signing of the Sept. 19 Joint Statement at the six-party talks, which calls for Pyongyang to abandon its entire nuclear program in return for political and economic incentives.

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