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North Korea Agrees To Deactivate Nuclear Test Site


North Korea's president now says he will dismantle his country's main nuclear test site. This gesture comes ahead of his historic meeting with President Trump. But is this a meaningful concession? It's unclear whether this nuclear site is actually still functioning.

We're joined now by Jonathan Cheng. He is the Seoul bureau chief at The Wall Street Journal. Welcome to the program.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, what is this latest announcement from North Korea's president?

CHENG: Well, Kim Jong Un says that not only is he going to shut down his nuclear test site in the northeast of his country, he is going to invite journalists and experts to come along and make sure that it's really happening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how meaningful is this gesture? I mean, that sounds like it's pretty meaningful if he's going to actually invite people to come and see if it's true.

CHENG: Yeah. Well, there are a couple of questions that people are asking. One is whether or not those nuclear test site is any use anymore because they've now tested six nuclear devices here over the past 12 years, and a lot of people say that the mountain is basically spent already. There's nothing left that they can even do there. And, of course, Kim Jong Un has already said that they completed their nuclear program. They don't need to even do any more tests.

So you've got those two questions. And then a lot of people have memories of 2008. That was a year after the previous inter-Korean summit. And at that time they invited all sorts of journalists to come and watch them blow up a cooling tower at their nuclear enrichment site. And we know what happened since 2008 and that's that they've since conducted five more nuclear tests.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, I guess treating this with a bit of caution. And we should also add here - although, it's of slightly less import - that he also says he's going to change the clocks back to be in sync with South Korea - symbolic or practical?

CHENG: Well, mostly symbolic. The move three years ago to change the time zone to what it is now was symbolic back then. The thing is that Korea is a former colony of Japan, and they share the same time zone. So Pyongyang was trying to say, we're going to move and be the real Korea, we're going to have our own time zone while South Korea shares a time zone with Japan. But on Friday, when Kim Jong Un was at the DMZ, he said that he looked over at the two clocks on the wall - one for Seoul time and one for Pyongyang time - and said it left him with a heavy heart, and he wanted to unify the clocks before unifying the countries - or something along those lines.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you make of this seeming goodwill from North Korea's president right now?

CHENG: Well, it's a tough question. That's what everyone's trying to figure out, which is, what was going on in his head? What's the game plan here? Is he being genuine? We've been burned on North Korea many times before. It can break your heart, as people say. But, given what we saw last year, I think there's a lot of hope here, even if people know it may be a long shot that something will change for good here.

We have a new leader in North Korea. He's a younger guy. We have a new president in the Oval Office, who is different from every one of his predecessors. And the tensions that we saw last year - the threats and the missile launches and everything else - was so scary, I think, for many people that they really do want to give it a shot here and see whether or not it's going to pan out this time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, just briefly, in South Korea, what is the view of President Trump's involvement in these talks and in him meeting the North Korean leader?

CHENG: Well, I think people here are happy to let him take the credit if that's going to help the situation. But I think privately here, people are skeptical that he deserves all the credit. But it should be said that no other president of the U.S. has made North Korea such a priority for so long. And for that much, I think we can all agree that he gets credit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jonathan Cheng is the Seoul bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. Thank you very much.

CHENG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.