ANALYSIS: N. Korea appears to freeze nuclear tests to restore economy

North Korea's declaration it is freezing nuclear tests signals its seriousness about restoring the country's stagnating economy by improving relations with the United States, some analysts said. "We will discontinue nuclear test and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire from April 21," the Workers' Party of Korea said in a resolution adopted Friday, adding North Korea will dismantle its main Punggye-ri nuclear test site in its northeast. This statement indicated that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has decided to move toward denuclearization -- a breakthrough ahead of his planned historic summits with South Korean President Moon Jae In and U.S. President Donald Trump. The resolution also suggested North Korea will shift its focus to achieving economic prosperity, instead of further pursuing programs of weapons of mass destruction. The ruling party's resolution said, "We will concentrate all efforts on building a powerful socialist economy and markedly improving the standard of people's living through the mobilization of all human and material resources of the country." In his first public speech as North Korea's leader in April 2012, Kim promised to ensure that "the people will never have to tighten their belt again," showing his intention to tackle poverty through adequate food provision and rebuild the stagnant economy. Kim, chairman of the Workers' Party, said at a plenary session held in March 2013 that North Korea will develop its nuclear arsenal "simultaneously" with efforts to boost the nation's economy. North Korea, however, has apparently put more emphasis on bolstering its nuclear capacities than on shoring up the economy, given that the Asian country has continued to carry out ballistic missile and nuclear tests for the past several years. Since Kim became the nation's leader following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests four times in defiance of international warnings, including the latest one in September that was its most powerful to date. The simultaneous development policy has eventually prompted other countries -- in particular the United States and Japan -- to impose severer economic sanctions on North Korea. China, Pyongyang's main economic lifeline, has also increased sanctions against North Korea since late last year, possibly dealing a fatal blow to its overall economy. Beijing used to account for about 90 percent of Pyongyang's external trade. In February, China's imports from North Korea plunged nearly 95 percent from a year earlier, official trade data showed in late March. (Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un attend a dinner party in Beijing on March 26)[KCNA/Kyodo] In March, Trump told reporters at the White House that international sanctions, especially "the great help" from China, appear to have propelled Kim to seek dialogue with the United States. About 70 percent of North Korea's 25.1 million population is "food insecure," the U.N. World Food Program says on its website, adding, "Many people suffer from chronic malnutrition due to lack of essential proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals." With the backing of Moon who has pledged to serve as an intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington, Kim is trying to reap economic benefits from the United States in return for vowing to move in the direction of denuclearization, foreign affairs experts said. Meanwhile, Pyongyang on Friday kept mum about whether it will abandon its existing nuclear weapons, sparking concern that its talks with the United States may not go well as Trump has been seeking complete denuclearization of North Korea. North Korea started developing nuclear weapons under Kim Il Sung, the country's late founder and grandfather of the current leader. It is now believed to have up to 60 nuclear warheads. "The miraculous victory of having perfectly accomplished the great historic cause of building the state nuclear force in a short span of less than five years is the great victory" of the Worker's Party, state-run media quoted Kim as saying at the plenary meeting. The historic tasks of the simultaneous development policy of nuclear weapons and the economy "were successfully carried out," Kim said, according to the Korean Central News Agency. These expressions have raised speculation that North Korea has no intention of giving up its existing nuclear weapons. Adopting a negotiating position as a nuclear power, North Korea may strongly urge the United States to ease or scrap economic sanctions, other experts said. If Kim and Trump fail to find a compromise, the possibility cannot be ruled out that security tensions between Washington and Pyongyang will escalate again, they added. Kim is expected to hold talks with Moon on the South Korean side of Panmunjeom on Friday and with Trump, possibly by early June, in the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit. South Korea and the U.N. Command, led by the United States, remain technically at war with North Korea after the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a cease-fire.

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