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After summit, ball is in Washington’s court

Sept 21,2018
South Korean President Moon Jae-in returned to Seoul on Thursday with a handful of outcomes from his third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, raising expectations of progress in stalled talks between North Korea and the United States on denuclearization.

Moon and Kim agreed to implement a variety of military measures that the Blue House said were equivalent to a practical “end of war declaration” between the two countries. The measures include withdrawing all guard posts from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), ending artillery exercises and banning nighttime field maneuvers along the border.

On the North’s nuclear arsenal - the thorny issue preventing economic cooperation projects from moving forward - Moon had Kim promise to allow international inspectors to verify the dismantlement of a missile engine testing site.

Kim also indicated during the summit that he could shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facility, the centerpiece of the North’s nuclear project, on one condition: Washington would have to take “corresponding measures” in accordance with an agreement signed by Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump during their summit in June.

With his promise to allow international experts, including those from the United States, to inspect the Tongchang-ri engine testing site, Kim is hoping to show skeptics that the North is working on permanently closing the site.

Satellite images suggest the dismantlement is already in progress, but outside inspections would help verify that process.

At an earlier meeting with one of Moon’s envoys, Kim lamented the international community’s suspicions about the North’s true intentions regarding several steps it took toward denuclearization, including shutting down its Punggye-ri nuclear test site and Tongchang-ri missile test site, which Kim said was the country’s only site that could produce long-range missiles powerful enough to reach the U.S. mainland.

Kim’s invitation of international inspectors to the Tongchang-ri site and agreement to take additional measures such as the permanent dismantlement of Yongbyon could be seen as an appeal to the United States to resume stalled talks between the two countries.

And for the first time, Kim made a verbal promise of denuclearization. While the North’s commitment to denuclearization has been stipulated in joint written statements, the absence of Kim’s verbal promise gave fodder for North Korea hawks who insist that the leader is not sincere about ridding his country of nuclear weapons.

But during a joint press conference with Moon on Wednesday, he said, “We have affirmed our commitment to make the Korean Peninsula a land of peace free from nuclear weapons and threats.”

The Pyongyang Declaration that Moon and Kim signed on Wednesday appears to have done its intended job of bringing the United States back to the table.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said his country was “prepared to engage immediately” with the North and called for a disarmament meeting in Vienna that he said would “mark the beginning of negotiations to transform U.S.-DPRK relations,” using an acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

While momentum is building with growing expectations of a second summit between Kim and Trump, some North Korea analysts say Kim has not gone far enough in his commitment to denuclearization.

Such a view stems from the fact that the North only agreed to take additional steps if the United States reciprocate. The absence of Kim’s word on a timeline, such as when the country might turn over a complete list of its nuclear stockpile and related facilities, compounds skepticism about the prospect of a nuclear deal.

“Although the agreement will contribute to progress in denuclearization, it is questionable how much it will satisfy North Korea hawks in Washington,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in Seoul specializing in North Korea affairs.

On denuclearization, the ball is now in Washington’s court, but other areas of discussion, including those between the two Koreas, are moving fast. The two countries have agreed to halt any acts of military confrontation on the ground, at sea and in the air, an agreement that the Blue House said amounts to an “effective end of war declaration.”

In addition to withdrawing guard posts in the DMZ, ending artillery drills and banning nighttime field maneuvers within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of the DMZ, the two sides agreed to create aerial and maritime buffer zones along the border where all acts of military confrontation are banned.

BY KANG JIN-KYU AND JOINT PRESS CORPS [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]