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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is pictured in this undated photo from the Korean Central News Agency.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is pictured in this undated photo from the Korean Central News Agency. (Courtesy of KCNA)

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said it’s suspending nuclear and missile tests as of Saturday and will close its nuclear test site, dealing its first negotiating hand ahead of planned summits with the South and the United States.

The surprise announcement, however, gave no indication the North was willing to dismantle or scale back its nuclear weapons program, as Washington and Seoul have demanded.

Instead, the isolated nation expressed confidence in its arsenal and said tests were no longer needed after months of heightened activity. North Korea demonstrated alarming progress last year with three intercontinental ballistic missiles and a sixth nuclear test — its most powerful test to date.

Still, the statement boosted optimism a week before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the heavily fortified border area on the divided peninsula.

That meeting is to be followed by the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit, which President Donald Trump has said will be held in May or early June.

“North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site,” Trump tweeted. “This is very good news for North Korea and the World - big progress! Look forward to our Summit.”

The United States and its allies are seeking to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program in a “complete, verifiable and irreversible” way.

The North said only that it “will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles” starting on Saturday.

“The northern nuclear test ground of [North Korea] will be dismantled to transparently guarantee the discontinuance of the nuclear test,” the Korean Central News Agency said in a report about a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party.

It also promised to join international efforts “for the total halt to the nuclear test” and said it will never use nuclear weapons or proliferate technology unless it faces a “nuclear threat and nuclear provocation” against its territory.

Intermediaries who have met with Kim Jong Un have said he expressed a willingness to denuclearize, but the KCNA report was the first direct word from North Korea itself.

SKEPTICISM OVER MOTIVESNorth Korea watchers have expressed skepticism that the communist state is willing to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons, and suggested any move in that direction is likely to come with a heavy price for relaxed sanctions or other concessions from the West.

North Korea, which has been ruled by the Kim family dynasty since it was founded in 1948, has agreed to halt its nuclear program in the past only to renege years later.

Some experts point out the North is on the verge of achieving one of its major goals of meeting with a sitting U.S. president and isn’t likely to go beyond a freeze.

Kim Jong Un presided over the meeting of the ruling party’s central committee as it declared a “great victory” in his so-called “byungjin” policy of simultaneously pursuing economic and nuclear development.

The committee unanimously adopted a resolution calling for shifting the national focus to achieving a strong socialist economy and making “groundbreaking improvements in people’s lives,” KCNA reported.

Kim, who assumed power after his father died of a heart attack in 2011, declared that the county had completed its nuclear force in his New Year’s address, during which he also agreed to have North Korea join the Olympics. He reiterated that on Friday. “No nuclear test and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for [North Korea] now, given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was finished,” Kim was quoted as saying.

“[Kim] added that the mission of the northern nuclear test ground has thus come to an end,” KCNA said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called it a positive development but expressed caution. Abe met with Trump last week amid concerns that Japan is being sidelined in the flurry of diplomacy.

"What is crucial here, however, is how this development is going to lead to the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of nuclear arms, weapons of mass destruction and missiles,” he said.

After dozens of missile tests last year, North Korea hasn't fired one since Nov. 28 when it launched an ICBM that it said could strike anywhere on the U.S. mainland.

Kim's motives in closing the nuclear test site also drew skepticism, as commercial satellite images have shown the mountainous area may be too unstable for further testing after six underground blasts since 2006.

As tensions spiked last year, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told reporters that his country could conduct an atmospheric hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean.

South Korea also welcomed the North’s decision, calling it “meaningful progress for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

“It will create a very positive environment for the success of the upcoming inter-Korean and North-U.S. summits,” the presidential office said in a statement.

Moon also said Thursday that Kim isn’t asking for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea as a precondition, despite the regime’s insistence that it security be guaranteed.

The North has long insisted its pursuit of nuclear weapons is meant as self-defense to counter what it has called a “hostile” U.S. policy.

About 28,500 U.S. servicemembers are based in the South since the two Koreas remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

"North Korea is expressing a commitment to a complete denuclearization," Moon said during a meeting with news executives in Seoul.

"They are not presenting a condition that the U.S. cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of the American troops in South Korea,” he added, according to a transcript of his remarks. “North Korea is only talking about the end of a hostile policy against it and then a security guarantee for the country."

gamel.kim@stripes.com Twitter: @kimgamel

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