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Trump thanks North Korea for saying it will dismantle nuclear test site ahead of summit

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SEOUL, South Korea — President Donald Trump thanked North Korea for saying on Saturday that it would dismantle its nuclear test site between May 23 and 25, in a dramatic event that would set up leader Kim Jong Un’s summit with Trump next month.

“North Korea has announced that they will dismantle Nuclear Test Site this month, ahead of the big Summit Meeting on June 12th. Thank you, a very smart and gracious gesture!” Trump wrote in a tweet Saturday evening.

In a statement carried by state media, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said that all of the tunnels at the country’s northeastern testing ground will be destroyed by explosion, and that observation and research facilities and ground-based guard units will also be removed.

Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides guidance on a nuclear weapons program in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides guidance on a nuclear weapons program in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang Sept. 3, 2017.KCNA via Reuters file

Kim had already revealed plans to shut down the test site by the end of May during his summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last month. Analysts say that while the closure of the site is important, it doesn’t represent a material step toward full denuclearization.

The North plans to invite journalists from the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Britain to witness the dismantling process, the Foreign Ministry’s statement said.

“A ceremony for dismantling the nuclear test ground is now scheduled between May 23 and 25,” depending on weather conditions, it said.

The journalists from the five selected countries will be provided with a charter flight from Beijing to the North Korean coastal city of Wonsan, from where they will travel by train to the test site, the statement said.

The ministry said the North will continue to “promote close contacts and dialogue with the neighboring countries and the international society so as to safeguard peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and over the globe.”

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Following the Moon-Kim summit, Moon’s office said Kim was willing to disclose the process to international experts, but the North’s statement Saturday didn’t include any mention about allowing experts on the site.

South Korea had no immediate response to the statement.

The North’s announcement comes days after Washington announced that the historic summit between Kim and Trump will be held June 12 in Singapore.

Seoul, which shuttled between Washington and Pyongyang to set up the Trump-Kim meeting, has said Kim has genuine interest in dealing away his nuclear weapons in return for economic benefits. However, there are lingering doubts about whether Kim would ever agree to fully relinquish the weapons he likely views as his only guarantee of survival.

During their summit at a border truce village, Moon and Kim vaguely promised to work toward the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, but made no references to verification or timetables.

Image: Excavation continued underground on Oct. 19, 2016 in the North Portal area at the Punggye-Ri Nuclear Test Site, suggesting more tests to come in the same tunnel complex directly under Mt. Mantap.
Excavation continued underground on Oct. 19, 2016 in the North Portal area at the Punggye-Ri Nuclear Test Site, suggesting more tests to come in the same tunnel complex directly under Mt. Mantap.DigitalGlobe / 38 North via Getty Images

North Korea for decades has been pushing a concept of “denuclearization” that bears no resemblance to the American definition. The North has been vowing to pursue nuclear development unless Washington removes its 28,500 troops from South Korea and the nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan.

Some experts believe Kim may try to drag out the process to wait out the Trump administration or seek a deal in which he gives away his intercontinental ballistic missiles but retains some of his shorter-range arsenal in return for a reduced U.S. military presence in the South. This could satisfy Trump but undermine the alliance between Washington and Seoul.

Kim declared his nuclear force as complete in December, following North Korea’s most powerful nuclear test to date in September and three flight tests of ICBMs designed to reach the U.S. mainland.

North Korea announced at a ruling party meeting last month that it was suspending all tests of nuclear devices and ICBMs, as well as the plan to close the nuclear testing ground.

Kim said during the meeting that the nuclear test site’s mission had come “to an end” because the North had completed the process of developing nuclear-capable intermediate-range missiles, ICBMs and other strike means.

The North also said for the first time at the meeting that it had been conducting “subcritical” nuclear tests. These refer to experiments involving a subcritical mass of nuclear materials that allow scientists to examine the performance and safety of weapons without triggering a nuclear chain reaction and explosion.

North Korea’s reference to such activity is designed to communicate that even without underground testing, the country intends to maintain its nuclear arsenal and be a “responsible” steward of those weapons at the same time, said Andrea Berger, a senior analyst at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Still, the closure of the underground testing site could be a useful precedent for Washington and Seoul as they proceed with the nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang, analysts say.

Image: Inter-Korean Summit 2018
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in pose for photographs after signing a declaration on April 27 in the border village of Panmunjom.Pool / Getty Images

“Now that North Korea has accepted in principle that agreements should be verified, U.S. negotiators should hold them to this standard for any subsequent agreement,” said Adam Mount, a senior defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. “It will make it more difficult for Kim Jong Un to deny inspections now that he has placed them on the table.”

North Korea has invited the outside world to witness the dismantling of its nuclear facilities before. In June 2008, international broadcasters were allowed to air the demolishing of a cooling tower at the Nyongbyon reactor site, a year after the North reached an agreement with the U.S. and four other nations to disable its nuclear facilities in return for an aid package worth about $400 million.

But in September 2008, the North declared that it would resume reprocessing plutonium, complaining that Washington wasn’t fulfilling its promise to remove the country from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The administration of George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list in October 2008 after the country agreed to continue disabling its nuclear plant. However, a final attempt by Bush to complete an agreement to fully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program collapsed that December when the North refused to accept U.S.-proposed verification methods.

The North went on to conduct its second nuclear test in May 2009.



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Trump and Biden prepare for final bout with debate to focus on Covid-19, race

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WASHINGTON — The gloves will be off and so will the mics in the final showdown between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

The stage, complete with plexiglass barriers, is set for the rivals’ second and final debate, which will kick off at 9 p.m. ET in Nashville on Thursday with NBC News’ Kristen Welker in the moderator’s chair.

Over the course of 90 commercial-free minutes, the candidates will spend about 15 minutes on each of six topics: fighting Covid-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security and leadership.

And in a new twist, each candidate will have two uninterrupted minutes to address each topic while the others’ microphone is turned off in order to avoid a repeat of the shouty first debate in Cleveland.

Organizers also warned that law enforcement officers will now be sent to deal with audience members who refuse to wear masks after many in Trump’s entourage flouted that rule during the previous debate.

With the election less than two weeks away and over 42 million ballots already cast, the debate may be Trump’s last chance to turn around a campaign that polls say he’s losing badly and Biden’s last chance to blow his lead.

Trump has proven to like theaterics and implemented them again. His guest to the debate is the former business partner of Biden’s son, Hunter, whom Trump has accused of corruption. It’s a repeat a move from his 2016 playbook when he brought women who had accused her Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to a debate with Hillary Clinton

Despite the president’s widely panned performance in his first debate — voters said Biden won by a 49 percent-to-24 percent margin, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll — Trump did even less traditional debate prep for this time around, his aides said.

Biden, by contrast, once again spent days sequestered with advisers to prepare for the expected onslaught, including against his son Hunter’s business dealings, prompting mockery from Trump and some anxiety from Democrats about the candidate being absent from the campaign trail in the final stretch of the election.

Trump has complained repeatedly about the rules and topics for Thursday’s debate, but recent polls have suggested Biden enjoys an edge in almost every major issue concerning voters, with the critical exception of the economy.

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to once again dominate the debate, which will be the first one since the president came down with the disease himself. He refused to participate in what was supposed to be the second debate after organizers converted it to a virtual format to prevent contagion.

The White House chief of staff told reporters traveling with the president earlier today that he tested negative for the novel coronavirus, which is unclear if he did before the first debate.

Americans continue to tell pollsters the health crisis and resulting economic downturn are the most important issues in the election, and Biden has hammered Trump on the issue while the president insists the country has “turned the corner” and is in recovery.

Race, the next topic of the debate, has also dominated American politics as Trump sought to tie Biden to the “defund the police” movement and protests that gripped the country this summer even while the president has been reluctant to forcefully condemn white supremacists.

Polls show voters favor Biden on handling race relations and are divided on the issue of protecting law and order, despite Republican hopes of making the issue a slam dunk for the president.

Welker is the first black woman to moderate a debate since 1992.

Climate change had never been a topic of a presidential debate before, but it will get a primetime spot after a pressure campaign by scientists, activists and others who say presidential candidates should have to address one of the biggest crises facing the country and world.

National security is the one area Trump seems especially excited to talk about. His campaign spent the past few days criticizing the non-partisan commission that organizes the debates for making foreign policy a single topic of the debate instead of its entire focus.

The debate’s final topic, leadership, is more amorphous. But it was four years ago in his final debate with Clinton that Trump shocked many by saying he might not accept the results of the election if he lost.



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