What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

What’s behind North Korea’s decision to suspend nuclear tests?

In a surprise move, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday announced that he would immediately suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests, though it's not the first time the isolated country has made those pronouncements. Jean Lee, director of the Korea program at the Wilson Center and a former Pyongyang bureau chief for the Associated Press, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    To help make sense of North Korea's statements and motivations in the upcoming summits we turn to Jean Lee, director of the Korea Program at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. She was also a former bureau chief for The Associated Press in Pyongyang. So let's first start talking a little bit about definitions here. There seems to be a different definition of denuclearization for the United States versus North Korea what do they mean by it?

  • JEAN LEE:

    For them, they've been talking about denuclearization for a long time and they mean denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula not just them giving up their nuclear weapons but the United States also removing its nuclear umbrella over the South Korean region as well as Northeast Asia.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So they're not necessarily saying that they're going to stop all of their nuclear programs. It's just specific to the nuclear test site and the missiles at this point.

  • JEAN LEE:

    Exactly. And we need to remember that even though this is such a dramatic statement the North Koreans have said this before it's not the first time they've agreed to suspend nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing. Just a reminder it was only six years ago that the North Koreans agreed with the United States to place a moratorium on this type of testing in exchange for significant aid and concessions. And then just a few weeks later test launched a long range rocket. And so that certainly that deal fell apart. So it's not new. It may seem dramatic but longtime North Korea watchers will tell you that we've heard this before.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How does this factor into North Korea's long term plan?

  • JEAN LEE:

    What we're seeing right now is really strategic messaging on the part of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to his own people. What we saw with the news that came out of North Korea just the past day was a significant moment in the making of this North Korean leader. This is going to be a treatise that is going to go down in history in in North Korea. And he's telling his people listen we are done with this face of nuclear testing for now because I have done what I set out to accomplish which was to prove to you that I can defend you with nuclear weapons that are proven to be a global threat and that means that makes us untouchable. So he's telling his people not only are we untouchable because we've reached this point with our nuclear weapons program but also that it makes as a world power and we see that in the language in that treatise. It also positions him to sit down with the leaders of South Korea and the United States in a very different position. And had he done this years ago. He is trying to portray himself as a rational world leader who embraces the concept of a nuclear weapons free world. And so he'll win simply by sitting down at that table even if he gets nothing out of it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What are the costs for North Korea to continue a nuclear program? I mean, this is a very poor country.

  • JEAN LEE:

    And this is partly why he's telling his people look I know that we've sacrificed a lot by pouring our meager resources into this extremely costly nuclear weapons program that has taken quite a toll economically not only in terms of cost but in terms of sanctions as well. The North Koreans have been living with sanctions for decades but they've certainly been stepped up. The elites of Pyongyang know that sanctions are going to start to take a significant bite in their economy and their way of life. And so that's something that he's telling his people as well. I did this as an investment in our defense. And now I can step back from that and refocus those resources into the economy.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right Jean Lee of the Wilson Center joining us from Washington thanks so much.

  • JEAN LEE:

    Thank you for having me.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest