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Did Kim Jong-un Really Seek to Denuclearize?

Did North Korean leader Kim Jong-un really seek to denuclearize?

Former South Korean President Moon Jae-in claims in his recent memoir that Kim was sincere in promising to denuclearize in 2018, and Moon believed him. Moon sees the failure to pursue Kim’s willingness as a major lost opportunity. Can we believe such a claim?

Of course, we will never know for sure, but evidence suggests Kim was hardly sincere.

Just one year after Kim’s supposed denuclearization offer, President Trump emerged from the 2019 Hanoi Summit to say the North Korean dictator was only willing to dismantle the Yongbyon complex for producing nuclear weapons in exchange for near complete removal of the economic sanctions on North Korea.

Trump later said that he had identified five key nuclear weapon production sites and Kim was only offering to dismantle one or two of them, apparently leaving Kim with substantial nuclear weapon production capability. There had been many U.S. criticisms of Trump’s 2018 Singapore Agreement because it heavily favored North Korea, and Kim’s Hanoi proposal was even more unbalanced.

Kim had apparently hoped that his other key production facilities were covert, and he was surprised when Trump identified some of them. Trump asked Kim to dismantle another nuclear weapon production site but Kim was reportedly unwilling to do so, so it is unlikely Kim was considering stopping his overall nuclear weapon production and freezing his nuclear weapon inventory.

And even a nuclear weapon production freeze is far from denuclearization, which would also require eliminating any existing North Korea nuclear weapons. So how could Kim claim that he wanted to denuclearize when he wasn’t even prepared for a nuclear weapon production freeze at the Hanoi Summit?

A North Korean document obtained after the Hanoi Summit says that Kim’s real objective at the Hanoi Summit was to get U.S. recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapon state. Had Trump made an agreement with Kim that ended most of the sanctions on North Korea while leaving the North with all of its nuclear weapons and a significant nuclear weapon production capability, he would have effectively done that.

Trump left the Hanoi Summit thinking that he had Kim’s agreement to build on the progress made at Hanoi and to continue negotiations. That was certainly not Kim’s perspective. Kim essentially shut-down the negotiation process for what has now been over five years. Kim apparently executed retribution on many of his personnel who had been involved in planning Hanoi, apparently blaming them for the embarrassment he suffered in failing to accomplish his objectives.

Moon should never have assumed that Kim sincerely wanted to denuclearize given North Korean policy on that issue. Even when Kim’s father led North Korea, the North had said on many occasions things like “it will never give up its nuclear weapons under any circumstance,” and “only fools will entertain the delusion that we will trade our nuclear deterrent for petty economic aid.” Not long before Kim supposedly promised Moon that the North would denuclearize, the North had said that “possessing nuclear arms is ‘irreversible’ and ‘inevitable’ to strengthen its ‘war deterrence.’”

By telling Moon that he wanted to denuclearize, Kim was able to buy time for his nuclear weapon development. Moon should have remembered that the Kim regime is prone to deception such as claiming that the South started the Korean War, the North does not violate human rights, or the North is a “utopia surrounded by a hellish outside world.” In 1992, the North agreed with the South to “not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.” Yet well before it voided that agreement in 2013 the North was doing most of these things.

Perhaps Moon felt that Kim did not need nuclear weapons for war deterrence and therefore thought that nuclear weapons were expendable to the North. Afterall, Moon was not interested in attacking the North in any way, and he knew that the United States had nothing to gain by attacking the North. But if that was what Moon thought, he neglected the real reasons for North Korea’s nuclear weapons: They create a powerful image of Kim inside the North that he needs for regime survival, and Kim wants nuclear weapons to coerce and compel South Korea.

In the end, memoirs often suggest much about what a leader hoped for. Clearly, Moon wanted peace with North Korea via its denuclearization, and chose to interpret events that were favorable to that possibility. But it would be a mistake to interpret Kim’s denuclearization promise as having been sincere.

About the Author: Dr. Bruce W. Bennett 

Bruce W. Bennett is a senior international/defense researcher at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution. He works primarily on research topics such as strategy, force planning, and counterproliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.


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