North Korea tells Russia it may be ready to halt nuke testing. Is it?

Analysts view Kim Jong-il's mention of a moratorium on nuclear testing, if six party talks resume, more as a gesture to Russian hosts than as a serious promise.

Dmitry Astakhov/Presidential Press Service/RIA Novosti/AP
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (r.) welcomes North Korean leader Kim Jong-il outside Ulan-Ude in Byryatia, on Wednesday, Aug. 24.

North Korea leader Kim Jong-il’s reported promise to Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev to put a “moratorium” on nuclear testing should six-party talks resume struck a hollow note Thursday among officials and analysts assessing the summit in Siberia.

As Mr. Kim returns home by train from his meeting with Mr. Medvedev in the Russian far east, officials in Washington and Seoul are saying the pledge adds little, if anything, to efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program.

A spokesman in South Korea’s foreign ministry told the South Korean media the pledge was “ambiguous,” while US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called it “insufficient.”

One problem, say analysts in Seoul, is that so far there is no confirmation of what was said beyond a statement by a Russian spokeswoman that Mr. Kim told Mr. Medvedev that “his country will be ready to solve the problem of imposing a moratorium on the tests and production of nuclear weapons.”

The North Korean media reported that that Kim met Medvedev after visiting a hydroelectric power plant and attended a cultural performance but has yet to mention a moratorium. Nor has there been any other comment from officials or Russian reporters covering the visit.

In any case, analysts view Kim’s mention of a moratorium more as a gesture to his Russian hosts than as a serious sign of willingness to scale back or give up the North’s nuclear program.

“This is a gift to the Russians,” says Choi Jin-wook, long-time North Korea specialist at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “They want to give leverage to the Russians,” he says, as a major regional power, while pushing longstanding proposals for deals on natural gas and electricity and accepting a gift of 50,000 tons in food for the North’s hungry people.

Mr. Choi notes that North Korea has never tested missiles or nuclear warheads during six-party talks, which were last held in Beijing in December 2008. North Korea has twice conducted underground nuclear tests, first in October 2006 and again in May 2009, but is not believed likely to conduct a third test while expressing its interest, in talks with US officials in New York, with Chinese leaders in Beijing and again in the summit in Siberia, in returning to the table.

“It is quite natural” that Kim Jong-il “should not test nuclear device while talks are on,” says Choi. “That’s the meaning of moratorium.”

Still, Kim’s summit may have quickened the pace toward returning to six-party talks even though officials say they do not harbor real hopes that talks will lead to resolution of issues.

Before meeting in Beijing with Chinese negotiator Wu Dawei, South Korea’s nuclear negotiator Wi Sun-lac told South Korean reporters he wanted to speed up the process. Both the South Koreans and the Americans, however, say North Korea has to show signs it’s serious about abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

The US would not return to talks “until North Koreans are prepared to meet all of the commitments,” said Ms. Nuland at the State Department. Both the US and South Korea have said North Korea has to call a halt to the program and allow inspectors from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency to verify compliance.

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