WASHINGTON, U.S. - In a surprise move on Saturday, North Korea announced through its KCNA news agency that it would be halting nuclear and missile tests, and that it would shut down one of its test site, at Punggye-ri.
The announcement was a written commitment by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and came months after the reclusive nation first offered to denuclearize while extending an invite to the U.S. President Donald Trump for a face to face meeting.
The reaction to North Korea’s announcement on Saturday was broadly welcoming, even though experts persisted on understanding the true reason behind Kim Jong Un’s sudden move away from the aggressive and threatening tone to one of silent compliance.
Trump described the move was “good news” for the world and said on Twitter, “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.”
He added in another tweet, “A message from Kim Jong Un: “North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Also will ‘Shut down a nuclear test site in the country’s Northern Side to prove the vow to suspend nuclear tests.’ Progress being made for all!”
South Korea said it was meaningful progress, with South Korea's presidential office welcoming the announcement as "meaningful progress" toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
In a statement, South Korea’s Presidential official Yoon Young-chan said that the North's decision brightens the prospects for successful talks between Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington.
The EU said it was “positive” while calling for complete denuclearization.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said it was a "long sought-after step" that should lead to "verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation".
Further, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered a more guarded reaction and said in a statement, ”What is crucial here ... is how this development is going to lead to the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of nuclear arms, weapons of mass destruction and missiles. And I will keep a close eye on that."
A statement from the British government noted, "We hope this indicates an effort to negotiate in good faith."
Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said it's "good news" that steps are being taken "to de-escalate and to defer from further bomb and missile tests," but added that "we have to keep the pressure up with the sanctions regime and everything else we are doing."
North Korea's main ally, China too welcomed Pyongyang's decision.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang was quoted as saying in the official Xinhua News Agency that Beijing wishes for North Korea to continue to achieve results in the development of its economy and improving the living standards of its people.
Kang added that China will support North Korea through dialogue and consultations with "relevant parties" to resolve their concerns and improve relations.
The move was also welcomed by Russia's foreign ministry, who also used the statement to call on the U.S. and South Korea to reduce their military activity in the region.
In the announcement, Kim Jong Un said further tests were not needed, as the North had demonstrated it had nuclear weapons - adding that “it was no longer necessary to conduct missile tests because nuclear weaponisation had been achieved.”
The reclusive leader, who is set to meet the South Korean President Moon Jae In next week for the first inter-Korean summit in over a decade said, "From 21 April, North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles."
This wasn’t the first time Kim Jong Un has made such a statement.
In a previous statement made during a New Year address, Kim Jong Un declared his nuclear and ballistic missile programs completed.
Many experts were quick to point out on Saturday that although Pyongyang said it would abolish its nuclear test site, there is no indication it is planning to get rid of its existing weapons.
KCNA clarified in its statement that the decision to halt missile tests is also aimed at pursuing economic growth and quoted the country’s leader as reportedly pledged to "concentrate all efforts" on developing a socialist economy during Friday's meeting.
It also was very apparent to many experts that while pledging to stop nuclear tests, North Korea had strategically stopped short of suggesting it has any intention of giving up its hard-won nuclear arsenal.
Further, its pledge to close down the nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri was also inspected closely, with experts pointing out that the facility was already believed to have been rendered unusable due to tunnel collapses after the North's test of its most powerful bomb to date last year.
However, overall, North’s announcement sets the table for further negotiations when the summits begin, first with the South Korean President next Friday, and then with Trump, expected in late May or early June.
Meanwhile, Kim Dong-gil, the director of the Korean Peninsula Center at Peking University pointed out that now that North Korea has nuclear weapons, they will use them as a bargaining chip to officially end the 1950-53 Korean War, make arrangements to guarantee North Korea's safety and ultimately allow North Korea to open up its economy to the rest of the world.
Other analysts believe Kim Jong Un feels he is entering the summit negotiations from a position of strength and is hoping to achieve tacit recognition that his country is now a nuclear power.
They reportedly believe he wants to engage in talks and make some concessions around the edges that would convince Washington and other countries to ease sanctions on his struggling economy.
Vipin Narang, an associate political science professor and nuclear proliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said, "This was a smart move by Kim. Although it largely formalizes previous pledges on the moratoria from last November and March, it still leaves a lot of wiggle room for circumventing the pledges in the future, and nothing in there is irreversible. And nothing in there mentions denuclearization, of any variety."
He noted that North Korea has already conducted as many nuclear tests as Pakistan and India - six - and may indeed not need to conduct any more underground testing.