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North Korea Crisis

South Korea split over North's pledge to stop nuclear tests

Pyongyang's past gestures toward denuclearization lacked follow-through

Commuters at a Seoul train station catch the news that North Korea has frozen testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un says the country will shift focus to the economy.   © AP

SEOUL -- The South Korean ruling party sees North Korea's announced halt to nuclear weapons testing as cause for hope ahead of a historic summit. But opposition figures say the announcement resembles previous false starts toward denuclearization.

"Both North and South are working to set a peaceful mood" ahead of this coming Friday's talks between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a spokesperson for Moon's Democratic Party of Korea said Sunday.

Pyongyang said the previous day that it would discontinue testing of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as shut down a nuclear test site. The ruling Workers' Party of Korea has decided to prioritize economic growth, with Kim declaring the isolated state's push to develop nuclear weapons "successfully concluded," according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

This is a "green light" from the North, portending success for Friday's historic summit, the Democratic spokesperson said. Moon attended a summit preparatory meeting on Sunday evening thought to have focused on updating the talks' agenda in light of Pyongyang's latest move.

The liberal opposition Party for Democracy and Peace also welcomes the North's change of direction, a spokesperson said. But the conservative Liberty Korea Party, formerly the Saenuri Party, is skeptical.

The Moon administration "is behaving as though the North has said it will denuclearize," Liberty Korea Chairman Hong Joon-pyo wrote in a Sunday post on his personal Facebook page. But "this is the time to remain cool," he advised. There have been false starts toward denuclearization in the past. The North in 2008 destroyed a cooling tower at a nuclear facility outside Pyongyang, only to continue building up its weapons program in the following years. "What is different now?" Hong asked.

Nuclear experts are similarly divided. One camp views Pyongyang's announcement as little more than a ploy to have punishing economic sanctions lifted, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported on Sunday. But optimists see the move as a genuine step toward denuclearization.

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