SEOUL – State media calls North Korea’s nuclear weapons a “treasured sword of justice.”
Pyongyang has released commemorative stamps and built monuments in honor of its ballistic missile tests, while nuclear and rocket scientists have been named national heroes.
For Kim Jong Un, fully giving up nuclear weapons would mean a dramatic reversal for an authoritarian leader who has not only staked his security on his nuclear arsenal, but also spent years publicly celebrating such weapons as an integral part of his regime’s legitimacy and power.
South Korean envoys who met Kim in Pyongyang earlier this month quoted Kim as saying he is “committed to denuclearization” and that he “expressed his eagerness to meet U.S. President Donald Trump as soon as possible.”
Chinese officials who met with Kim in Beijing this week also said he committed to denuclearization, but initial North Korean state media reports on the visit did not mention the nuclear issue.
Absent any public confirmation from Pyongyang, analysts are skeptical Kim will suddenly give up the nuclear arsenal he and his family have spent decades developing.
Instead, Kim is likely to seek a more nuanced and long-term approach that could allow him to emerge looking victorious in the minds of his people and domestic elites, they say.
“Kim Jong Un does not need to sell anything to the North Korean population, particularly because denuclearization is a process that will take at least 10 years to realistically achieve,” said Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea leadership at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North website.
“Pyongyang most likely envisions . . . a series of incremental agreements around this, rather than one or two large grand bargains.”
Former South Korean officials who have negotiated with the North in the past say such a pivot could be difficult, but not impossible — if the United States makes major concessions Kim Jong Un can take back and parade to his people.
“Kim Jong Un would seek to propagate the idea that he induced the U.S. and international community’s ‘surrender’ by having mastered nuclear weapons,” said Kim Hyung-suk, who served as the South’s vice unification minister between 2016 and 2017.
“If talks go well, sanctions are eased and the economy grows. Then the people would understand Kim’s denuclearization decision and become strongly supportive of it.”
That may not be the kind of deal Trump envisions as he plans to sit down with Kim sometime in May for an historic first summit between sitting leaders of the two countries.
John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser, recently said Trump should insist any meeting he holds with Kim be focused squarely on how to eliminate that country’s nuclear weapons program as quickly as possible.
Silence in Pyongyang
The lack of comment from North Korean state media on the proposed talks between Kim and Trump was not unexpected, analysts said.
“It might reflect an ongoing internal discussion about how to deal with public opinion, certainly, although I would characterize that as a broader discussion of how to proceed overall,” said Christopher Green, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group, which researches conflict.
Given the importance he has attached to the weapons, and the money poured into their development, Kim will have to tread carefully to ensure any talk of abandoning the nuclear program started by his grandfather and continued by his father will not undermine his legitimacy at home, experts say.
To try to balance factions in his government, Kim Jong Un embraced a policy of byungjin, or simultaneous military and economic development, after he came to power in 2011.
Since 2013, the pro-military factions have been ascendant, but a Trump summit could lend heft to arguments by officials who prefer to prioritize economic development, Green said.
A number of military authorities and other senior elites might be less receptive to denuclearization.
“For them, it’s unthinkable to ensure regime security with conventional forces alone, so they could object to Kim’s decision and continue to argue for keeping the bombs,” said Kim Hyung-suk.
According to South Korean and Chinese officials, Kim Jong Un told them denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula was his forebears’ teaching — a potential talking point if he does try to justify curtailing his much-vaunted nuclear program.
“It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” Kim told Chinese President Xi Jinping during a visit to Beijing this week, according to Chinese state media.
Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather both publicly promised not to pursue nuclear weapons, but secretly continued to develop the programs, culminating in the country’s first nuclear test in 2006 under Kim Jong Il.
Even after that test, Kim Jong Il insisted in a 2007 summit with his South Korean counterpart that he didn’t “have the intention to own nuclear weapons.”
The history of failed negotiations with Pyongyang makes many observers, including former senior U.S. diplomat Evans Revere, skeptical the latest negotiations will be any different.
In past talks, North Korea had said it could consider giving up its arsenal if the United States removes its troops from South Korea and withdraws its so-called “nuclear umbrella” of deterrence from South Korea and Japan, a stance Washington has found unacceptable.
“Those of us who have negotiated with the North Koreans know what they mean (by denuclearization),” Revere said.
“About the only thing that the North Korean leader might need to ‘sell’ to his people — and particularly to the military — is the idea of a ‘freeze’ on some elements of his program.”