The South Korean government is trying to keep the momentum in diplomatic efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff, announcing Sunday that the Kim regime would dismantle its main nuclear test site next month and was prepared to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The South’s presidential Blue House also revealed a symbolic step of goodwill from the North Korean leader: It would move its clock forward half an hour to return to the same time zone as Seoul and Tokyo.
This came two days after the historic summit between South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, which resulted in a joint statement containing a vague agreement to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Kim pledged to dismantle its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, in the north of the country, in May and would invite international experts and journalists to watch, a Blue House spokesman said Sunday.
“Some say that we are terminating facilities that are not functioning, but you will see that we have two more tunnels that are bigger than the existing ones and that they are in good condition,” Moon’s chief press secretary, Yoon Young-chan, quoted Kim as saying.
There have been reports that the test site, buried under Mount Mantap, was suffering from “tired mountain syndrome” and was unusable after last September’s huge test, which caused an earthquake so big that satellites caught images of the mountain above the site actually moving.
But numerous nuclear experts have cast doubt on that theory, and Kim apparently did, too.
Kim said he would invite security experts and journalists to the North to observe the closure of the site, Yoon said.
That will likely prompt skepticism in Washington, given that in 2008 North Korea invited international journalists to film the destruction of the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, from which it had been harvesting plutonium to make its first bombs.
All the while, it turned out North Korea was building a separate uranium enrichment facility, so it could continue to produce fissile material even without Yongbyon.
Kim also reportedly said he had no intention of using his nuclear weapons against neighboring countries.
“Although I am inherently resistant toward America, people will see that I am not the kind of person who fires nukes at South Korea, the Pacific or America,” Kim said during the summit, Yoon told reporters in Seoul Sunday.
“Why would we keep nuclear weapons and live in a difficult condition if we often meet with Americans to build trust and they promise us to end the war and not to invade us?” Yoon quoted Kim as saying.
That will certainly be viewed as disingenuous, to say the least, given that Kim’s representatives and state media outlets repeatedly threatened last year to fire nuclear-tipped missiles at the United States and to detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific.
But this is a new year, and Kim, in a strong position having obtained demonstrably functional nuclear weapons and missiles, appears ready to deal.
Kim also said he would turn the clocks forward in North Korea to put them back in sync with South Korea and Japan, Yoon said.
In 2015, on Aug. 15 – the day the Koreas mark their independence from Japan’s colonial rule – the Kim regime put the clocks back half an hour to create the “Pyongyang Time” time zone. It framed the decision as a rebuke to its former colonial ruler.
South Korea’s progressive president wants to use his summit with Kim as a springboard to improve Pyongyang’s relations with Tokyo and particularly with Washington.
Moon and President Donald Trump spoke on the phone for 75 minutes on Saturday night Seoul time, and agreed that South Korea and the United States should continue to closely coordinate “so that the planned U.S.-North Korea summit generates an agreement on concrete measures to realize complete denuclearization,” the Blue House spokesman said.
Trump tweeted afterward that he “had a long and very good talk with President Moon of South Korea.”
“Things are going very well, time and location of meeting with North Korea is being set,” Trump said. “Also spoke to Prime Minister Abe of Japan to inform him of the ongoing negotiations.”
Moon also spoke with Abe over the weekend and “offered to lay a bridge between North Korea and Japan,” another Blue House spokesman said.
Moon and Chinese premier Li Keqiang are expected to meet in Tokyo for a trilateral meeting with Abe – itself a significant breakthrough in the frosty relations in the region – on May 9.
Moon will then travel to Washington for a meeting with Trump about the latter’s summit with Kim, expected to take place at the end of May or beginning of June.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Anna Fifield