SEOUL/TOKYO -- North Korea's announcement Saturday that it would halt nuclear and long-range missile tests surprised many, but North Korean leader Kim Jong Un fell short of committing the rogue state to dismantling its nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
While the announcement raised hope amongst some that North Korea is moving toward denuclearization, experts suggest that the intention of this latest move is to once again gain concessions from South Korea and the U.S. in upcoming summits. They question whether the announcement signals anything more than a repeat of past episodes where the North made promises in exchange for concessions, only to later break those promises.
Last November, Kim's regime launched an ICBM Hwasong 15, which is capable of striking the continental U.S., and declared that it has "completed" its nuclear program. Since then, the nation has refrained from provocative nuclear tests and missile launches. Analysts say the official announcement of a halt to the program does not change the status quo.
The central committee of the Worker's Party of Korea also announced it would abandon the nuclear testing site at Punggyeri. But experts say the site has already outlived its role, as the country had solved technical difficulties associated with its atomic warheads in its sixth test in September 2017. Rockslides and tremors that were kicked off by the tests now continuously hit Punggyeri, and the site is said to be unable to handle any more.
World leaders welcomed the announcement. "North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the World -- big progress! Look forward to our Summit," U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted soon after the announcement.
China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was also positive: "The Chinese side believes that North Korea's decision will help ameliorate the situation on the peninsula," the ministry said on its website.
Japan's reaction was more mixed and referred to past promises that were subsequently ignored.
"We value and welcome the positive development," said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But he added "We will closely monitor if the development leads to complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, and missiles."
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso was skeptical. "We paid them before on the condition that they would give up their nuclear testing site," Aso said. "But they kept using the site, and they kept the money."
Kim Jong Un reportedly said at the central committee meeting that North Korea has "verified the completion of nuclear weapons." Since the regime has not said it would now give those weapons up, analysts doubt that the decision can be taken as a step toward denuclearization.
"It is no more than a peace show," said Park Too-jin, chief of the Korea International Institute. "The show's aim is to impress the world with its attitude toward nuclear abandonment to warm up the mood for talks, and also to make it difficult for Trump to make tough demands at the upcoming summit."
Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University, was also doubtful. "The decision is a negotiation strategy to make sure there will be a U.S.-North Korea summit," Dujarric said. "This will not affect the military balance of East Asia."
Although the headline concessions did not suggest denuclearization is imminent, there were some positive indications that emerged from the central committee meeting. At the meeting, Kim Jong Un dropped the party's basic guideline that it would jointly pursue economic growth and nuclear armament -- a policy that had been in place since 2013. Instead, he said the country would fully focus on "economic construction."
From the beginning of the year, North Korea has shifted its foreign policy toward one that seems aimed at dialogue with the U.S. and South Korea. This drastic change has spread confusion among party executives and its citizens.
"Today's announcement came in the form of a party decision instead of just a statement, making it official to gain more attention from the general public of North Korea," said Lee Jong-wong, a professor at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University. "In trade, they had to pay the price and (making the announcement an official one) makes the decision harder to reverse."
Jin Chang-soo, president of the Sejong Institute, agreed that the announcement was intended to set the stage for a summit. "North Korea wanted to do something before its summit with the U.S. But it is too early to say that North Korea has the real will for denuclearization because such announcements are just entrance for the process."
The inter-Korea summit is to come next weekend. The U.S.-North Korea summit is expected to happen by June at the latest. By then, there may be more evidence to show whether today's decision signaled another ploy by North Korea or concrete steps toward denuclearization.
Nikkei staff writers Kim Jaewon in Seoul and Momoko Kidera in Tokyo contributed to this story.