SEOUL, South Korea — For as long as Kim Jong Un has been North Korea’s leader, he has called for the simultaneous pursuit of nuclear weapons and economic growth with the aim of making the nation a “great socialist nuclear power.”
The strategy has been at the center of his government’s propaganda and is enshrined in the charter of the governing Workers’ Party. But Kim said it was now time to adopt a “new strategic line” and focus the nation’s resources on rebuilding its economy.
As for nuclear weapons, he essentially declared that mission accomplished, saying North Korea no longer needed to test long-range missiles or atomic bombs and would close its only known nuclear test site. The byungjin policy, he said, already had achieved a “great victory” — an arsenal capable of deterring the nation’s enemies.
Kim’s pivot from nuclear testing and toward the economy came just days before a scheduled meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and weeks before his planned summit meeting with President Donald Trump.
Despite lingering doubts about his nation’s ability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear weapon, Kim appeared to be making clear he intends to enter negotiations with Washington the way the Soviets did decades ago, as an established nuclear power.
The big question is whether he will relinquish his nuclear weapons.
South Korean policymakers argue that Kim is signaling a willingness to dismantle his nuclear arsenal for the right incentives, including economic aid, a peace treaty and other security guarantees from Washington — measures he needs to rebuild the North’s economy.
U.S. officials say they have been repeatedly cheated by the North in previous talks on denuclearization. A deal in 1994 eventually collapsed when the United States accused the North of secretly enriching uranium. Another deal in 2005 fell apart in a dispute over how to verify a nuclear freeze. In 2012, the North launched a long-range rocket after agreeing to a moratorium on missile testing.
Kim’s decision to make the economy the nation’s priority and suspend nuclear tests was unanimously adopted at a Workers’ Party meeting Friday. He also pledged to neither use nor proliferate nuclear weapons unless faced with a nuclear threat.
Washington, Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo welcomed the move, although they cautioned that the suspension of tests was just one step toward denuclearization. The announcement made no mention of further steps.
If Kim is serious about economic growth, he will need the world’s help, analysts say. They point to the example set in the 1980s by China’s paramount leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, whose opening to the West was critical to his country’s boom.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
CHOE SANG-HUN © 2018 The New York Times