By Phil Stewart and Haejin Choi
WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) - In declaring a unilateral freeze in missile testing, North Korea appears ready to settle for now with an imperfect nuclear arms capability, one good enough to stoke fear in the United States but which can't promise to strike U.S. targets reliably, experts say.
North Korea said on Saturday it no longer needed to conduct nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile tests because it had reached its weapons development goals, even though U.S. officials and experts do not believe the North's program is complete.
The declaration came ahead of talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in on Friday. Kim, whose economy is under pressure from international sanctions, is expected to meet U.S. President Donald Trump in late May or early June.
One big gap in the North's weapons program, U.S. officials say, is that Pyongyang has not proven it has a reliable re-entry vehicle that can carry a nuclear warhead to a U.S. target on an ICBM without breaking up in the atmosphere.
Still, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who recently became the first serving U.S. official ever to meet Kim, estimated earlier this year that North Korea could need just a handful of months to become capable of staging a nuclear attack on the United States.
Cheong Seong-chang, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute south of Seoul, said Kim's decision to halt testing was a concession, of sorts, ahead of negotiations.
"Giving up ICBM testing while your technology isn't yet complete means you are willing to give up at least that part of the missile program," he said.
But other experts argued that Kim had conceded little, arguing that he could lift the testing freeze at any time and that his nuclear program had already achieved its main goal: demonstrating enough of a nuclear missile threat to be able to stoke uncertainty in the United States.
"They say it's reliable enough, and you know what? They're right," said Joshua Pollack, a senior researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California.
DISMANTLING ITS NUKES?
Pollack suggested that Kim only wanted the missiles to instill caution in U.S. military circles.
"And to instill caution in your enemy, it does not have to be perfect," Pollack said.
North Korea is seeking relief from international sanctions hurting its economy. In past failed deals, it agreed to give up its weapons program in exchange for aid, including fuel oil and alternative nuclear reactors, as well as security guarantees, which have included a U.S. pledge not to attack or invade.
A White House National Security Council spokesman told Reuters on Sunday the Trump administration would not make "the same mistakes of the past," suggesting North Korea would need to dismantle much of its nuclear programs for U.S. concessions.
"We are looking for substantial dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear programs first, and until denuclearization is achieved the global maximum pressure campaign will continue," the spokesman said.
Trump, who would become the first serving U.S. president to meet a North Korean leader, appeared to temper his initial enthusiasm over the test freeze by saying on Sunday that the North Korean nuclear crisis was a long way from being resolved.
Joseph Bermudez from 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project, said North Korea's announcement of a testing freeze could be a positive step -- if it is sustained and negotiations progress.
But he cautioned against over-optimism or a sign that Pyongyang is about to dismantle its nuclear weaponry.
Even before the North's announcement, there had been a de facto freeze since Pyongyang's largest and most recent nuclear test in September and its last missile test in late November.
"It doesn't mean that they've given up their ballistic missile program at all," Bermudez said.
"It simply means that they're not going to test at the present time and that's probably based on the belief that they can extract concessions at the upcoming summit."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Michael Perry)