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North Korea’s freeze on nuclear testing isn’t a victory — it’s negotiation

North Korea’s freeze on nuclear testing isn’t a victory — it’s negotiation


Freezes can thaw

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Illustration by William Joel / The Verge

North Korea will be pressing pause on its nuclear and missile tests this weekend in advance of summits with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in next week and with Donald Trump sometime this spring, Reuters reports.

The announcement, via state news agency KCNA, also included plans to shutter its nuclear test site, according to the Washington Post. But that doesn’t mean North Korea’s getting rid of the nuclear weapons that it has already developed, or that testing is done for good: the test site is still there, and the regime can resume testing when it pleases, says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS). To make it non-operational, they’d have to fill the tunnels.

The announcement isn’t particularly surprising to Lewis, who says North Korea wouldn’t have tested its nuclear weapons in advance of the summits anyways because of the political repercussions. “So why not announce it and get credit?” he said in a text message to The Verge. “They aren’t giving anything up.”

North Korea has paused its nukes program before: there was a moratorium on missile testing between 1999 and 2006, according to Lewis. And the plant used to make plutonium for weapons has been shut down and restarted periodically.

In fact, the freeze could signal that Kim Jong-Un is satisfied with the progress North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has made, tweeted Melissa Hanham, also an arms control expert at MIIS. The point of nuclear and missile tests is to make sure that new designs work as intended. If the designs are solid, you don’t need to test them — that’s why the US doesn’t blow up nukes in tests.

This darker interpretation suggests that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has moved on from the “test it” to the “build it” phase of development, Lewis says. “They are stockpiling weapons and missiles now,” Lewis says. “They’ve already tested them.”

It’s a “remarkable pledge,” Hanham tweeted. But it’s also “great propaganda,” she adds. Kim Jong-Un could just as easily end the freeze — which is why verification matters. The arms control analysts at MIIS will be keeping an eye on North Korea from satellite photos. As negotiations about North Korea’s nuclear future unfold over the coming months, it’ll be important to know what exactly North Korea has given up, and what it hasn’t. This shouldn’t be seen as a victory. It’s a negotiating tactic.