South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after a signing ceremony at their summit at Paekhwawon State Guesthouse in Pyongyang on September 19, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pyeongyang Press Corps
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after a signing ceremony at their summit at Paekhwawon State Guesthouse in Pyongyang on September 19, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pyeongyang Press Corps

In the fraught process of North Korean denuclearization, Pyongyang has hit the ball firmly into the US court by offering to welcome international inspectors to oversee the “permanent” dismantling of its missile-engine test site, and also to shut down its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon.

The latter offer is potentially the biggest move North Korea could make on denuclearization. However, it is conditional upon the US taking undefined “corresponding measures.”

Still, the offers suggests that South Korean President Moon Jae-in has struck, if not gold, then certainly silver, in his aim of getting the stalled denuclearization process, on which North Korea and the United States are deeply divided, back on track.

A range of positive inter-Korean initiatives were also announced on the second day of the Inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.

Kim offers to visit Seoul

The North Korean offers were made in a joint statement signed by Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday morning, on the second day of their three-day summit in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

Discussions were to continue in the afternoon, after which Moon will watch a mass games performance. Though such performances typically include regime propaganda, Wednesday’s performance has reportedly been tweaked so it contains nothing that would be considered sensitive by the South Korean side.

Speaking at a joint news conference broadcast live in South Korea, Kim, speaking beside Moon, said the two had agreed to turn the Korean peninsula into a “land of peace without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats.”

The statement also said Kim would visit Seoul in the near future. If he does, it would be a milestone – the first time a North Korean leader would have visited South Korea. Two of the previous inter-Korean summits were held in Pyongyang; the other two were held in Panmunjom, the inter-Korean truce village in the Demilitarized Zone.

The agreement also said the Koreas would field a joint team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and – in another bombshell – would bid to jointly host the 2032 Summer Olympics.

Given present relations, the latter would present almost insurmountable cross-border customs, immigration, communications and transport challenges – but would certainly segue with Moon’s publicly declared hopes of linking the Northern and Southern cross-border road and rail networks.

The two Koreas agreed, in the joint statement, to get that process started by the end of this year.

The 2032 Olympic declaration might also be welcomed by the International Olympic Committee, which – given the massive expenses shouldered by single nations hosting global sports events, with their requirements for infrastructure spend – favors joint hostings. South Korea has already successfully joint hosted one major event – the 2002 World Cup – with neighbor Japan.

In a move that will be welcomed by tens of thousands on both sides of the DMZ, the North and South also agreed, under Red Cross auspices, to establish video-conference facilities for the use of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War, and will then set up a permanent meeting facility in the South Korea-invested tourist resort in North Korea’s Mount Kumgang.

The resort has been largely unused after a South Korean tourist was shot there by a North Korean soldier in an apparent accident in 2008.

The two sides also agreed to normalize operations at Mount Kumgang, and at a similarly shuttered southern-invested complex in North Korea, the Kaesong industrial zone.

Moon and ministers were not the only South Koreans in Pyongyang on Wednesday. A top-tier delegation of business leaders, including the heads of Samsung, SK and LG, were also in the city. In the afternoon, they were to visit educational institutions, according to a report on their schedule released by South Korea.

Early US reaction

US President Donald Trump, who has made North Korean denuclearization a centerpiece of his foreign policy and is facing multiple domestic challenges ahead of mid-term US elections in November, seized upon the agreement using his preferred communications format.

“Kim Jong Un has 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,” Trump tweeted. The president also called the possible joint-Korea bid for 2032 “Very exciting!”

Trump has been positive about his relationship with Kim personally, but canceled US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s last visit to Pyongyang, citing lack of progress on denuclearization.

He and Kim had signed a statement that included the total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in Singapore in June. Some praised that statement for its generality, which offered both players maximum leeway. Other criticized it for its lack of specifics and timeline – and indeed, since the summit, the two have not managed to reach an agreement on exactly what steps will constitute the process.

North Korea has frozen missile and nuclear tests, blown up entrances to its underground nuclear test site and started the dismantling of a missile engine test facility. In return, the US has indefinitely halted joint military exercises in South Korea, but is demanding a list of North Korean nuclear facilities as the start point of the process, and is expected, thereafter, to demand an inspection and verification protocol to be overseen by professional international inspectors.

Experts warn that such a process will take years, and will be extremely invasive.

Following the statement, the US will have much to mull as Pompeo prepares to host a UN Security Council meeting on North Korean denuclearization on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 27.

Also at the UN General Assembly, Moon is expected to meet and brief Trump – who, according to Moon’s aides, has called the South Korean president a “chief negotiator’ between himself and Kim.

It is not clear whether Kim will attend the General Assembly: If he did, it would be the first time a North Korean leader had ever set foot in the United States.

Pundits were mixed on the morning’s announcements from Pyongyang.

“We’re starting to get some meat on the bones now,” said Daniel Tudor, co-author of “North Korean Confidential.” Obviously, much depends on the American reaction, but looking at Trump’s tweeted response, we’re on course.”

“There is a very good mood and a very good atmosphere, but this is not very specific,” said Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea expert at Japan’s Ritsumeikan University. “There is going to be a lot of work to do to make [North Korea’s denuclearization offer] materialize.”

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