Chief of the National Security Office Chung Eui-yong (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meeting at the Worker’s Party of Korea in Pyongyang on March 5, 2018 (Source: Blue House (Republic of Korea))
Last week, on April 21, the North Korean leadership showed just how savvy it really is at propaganda. In one single statement by the Worker’s Party Central Committee—cabled out instantly through news media all over the globe—it managed to project two distinctly different messages all at once, and each target audience soaked up what it wanted to hear. The world outside North Korea saw a declaration that the country would stop testing nuclear weapons and missiles as a move of peace, toward denuclearization. The actual message, however, was the opposite: that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles are good enough that more testing simply isn’t necessary. The domestic audience saw and heard the latter message, and it is likely the most accurate reflection of the government’s policy.
Taken together, the statement that some saw as an olive branch and a concession was really a declaration of victory. North Korea stated that it has no need for further tests of its missiles and nuclear weapons because, well, they’re satisfied and confident with what they have. In other words, North Korea is going into the upcoming summits—the first one tomorrow, on Friday April 27, with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, then later in the spring or summer with U.S. President Donald Trump—as a full-fledged nuclear state. North Korean messaging has been designed deliberately and skillfully to please several audiences at once. The North Korean people are yet to hear from its domestic media any messages about denuclearization, and most North Koreans are likely unaware of the claims by South Korean officials that North Korea is prepared to discuss seriously giving up its nuclear weapons. On the contrary, for the past few years, the nuclear weapons have been a central feature in North Korea’s domestic propaganda, portrayed as a core part of its national identity.
North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons remains highly unlikely. By stating that it is confident enough in its nuclear deterrent to cease testing, North Korea signals that its nuclear weapons program has reached its goals, while also projecting a willingness to make concessions of sorts. It is going into the season of summits with both confidence and a measure of flexibility. Not to be left out is the leadership’s proclamation that it will now turn to the second “leg” of the two-pronged Byungjin Line of parallel development of nuclear weapons and the national economy.
The statement gave away few concrete measures that North Korea plans to undertake to get there. This was no declaration that North Korea will overturn its economic system. Rather, to the domestic audience, the signal was that from now on, since the nuclear deterrent is secure, the state can focus more attention and resources to economic development and improving people’s living standards. Kim Jong-un has staked a great deal of political capital on this idea, promising in his first public speech in 2012 that North Koreans would “never have to tighten [their] belts again.” To the rest of the world—and South Korea and the U.S. in particular—the message appeared to be that North Korea wants economic deals and incentives, such as increased trade (and naturally, abolition of the economic sanctions). Without investments and assistance from outside, North Korea’s talk of economic development likely won’t go very far beyond slogans, at least not in any rapid pace.
Parsing the Statements
To better understand North Korea’s point of departure going into the two planned summits, it is beneficial to take a more detailed look at some key parts of the regime’s recent statements. The following excerpts come both from the Korean Central News Agency’s (KCNA) English-language version of the statement, and, in original Korean, from Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s state newspaper, on April 21.
First, the framing matters. Kim Jong-un spoke about the nuclear deterrent before anything else in the announcement. When he reported on the first agenda item, “on tasks of our Party to further accelerate socialist construction,” Kim said that the rapid development of “the state nuclear force,” simultaneously with “pushing forward the economic construction,” in less than five years—since the Byungjin Line was officially launched in 2013—is a great victory of the Korean Worker’s Party (WPK). Byungjin frames the whole statement and is the official roadmap along which the North Korean regime measures progress. In the English-language translation by KCNA, the term “nuclear” appears twice in one (albeit very long) sentence. North Korea, the statement says, has been “reborn” (재탄생) into a nuclear power. And so on, and so forth. If this is North Korea’s statement of conceit on its nukes, it’s a rather well-hidden message.
Second, and the statement is very clear on this point, Kim Jong-un said that nuclear weapons and missiles need not be tested anymore since their capacity has been verified as much as it needs to be. This part deserves to be quoted in full, for clarity’s sake:
He said that no nuclear test and intermediate range and intercontinental ballistic rocket test fire are necessary for the DPRK now, given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was verified as the whole processes of developing nuclear weapons were carried out in a scientific way and in regular sequence, and the development of delivery and strike means was also made scientifically. He added that the mission of the northern nuclear test ground has thus come to an end.
Although North Korea hasn’t yet showed that their intercontinental ballistic missiles have full capability for re-entry—that is, to carry a nuclear warhead to a target in the United States without it breaking up in the atmosphere—North Korea has shown its capacity to be, at least, good enough to frighten its adversaries. And as far as nuclear deterrents go, that’s all they really need to do.
Finally, on the economy, the statement was very vague, other than stating that the economy is an important priority (which it presumably is for any government on the planet). Take this part, for example:
He noted that the immediate goal of the struggle for realizing the new strategic line is to keep production going at full capacity at all industrial establishments and reap a rich harvest in all agricultural fields during the period of carrying out the five-year strategy for national economic development and thus make the people’s laughter resound far and wide across the country.
All leaders, presumably, want their country’s “production going at full capacity” and “reap a rich harvest in all agricultural fields.” The more important issue here is priorities. The North Korean idea of implementing Byungjin has been that while economic and military development go hand-in-hand, and even reinforce one another, the government’s political attention is a finite resource. When it comes to sequencing, the nuclear deterrent has come first, and the economic leg of Byungjin has had to wait. Now, however, Kim is basically saying that the weapons-leg of the strategy is complete, and the government can dedicate its full attention to economic development:
He clarified that at the present stage in which the DPRK was successfully put on the position of the world level politico-ideological and military power, it is the strategic line of the WPK to concentrate all efforts of the whole party and country on the socialist economic construction.
The key here, I think, is the “all efforts” part. That is, the economy, from now on, won’t be one of several priorities, but a main one. When the dust settles and deals of some sort finally come out the summits and North Korea receives recognition as a nuclear power (which, in the end, it is probably expecting), building up the economy that collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s will be the main focus of the government.
That is certainly good news, or at least, it could be. But it’s unclear precisely what policies the WPK has in store. Under Kim Jong-un, market mechanisms have been granted an increasingly larger and more institutionalized place in the economic system. That’s a good thing, and the North Korean economy is better off for it. Actually creating significant, sustainable growth is a different matter. There are creative and highly intelligent bureaucrats in North Korea with ideas that could be implemented on short notice. Whether their ideas will be sufficiently heard is a different question. In any case, the Central Committee statement gave few specifics on how the vision of “socialist economic construction” will be implemented in practice. It gave a clue that trade with the region is likely one aspiration:
Sixth, we will create international environment favorable for the socialist economic construction and facilitate close contact and active dialogue with neighboring countries and the international community in order to defend peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the world.
A favorable environment for socialist economic construction sounds like one where North Korea isn’t sanctioned anymore and where its neighbors willingly trade with it. That’s an understandable hope, and North Korea may well end up getting assistance to realize it through the process started by the upcoming summits. But there’s no shortage of challenges to meet along the way. Even with a detente around the nuclear program, North Korea lacks a system for property rights, and the political risk for foreign investors is unfathomably high. Its infrastructure is dilapidated, energy supply is spotty, and the region, not least, holds many alternatives that are far less complicated for foreign investors than North Korea.
All in all, however, Kim Jong-un will enter the negotiations with confidence, as the man who finally gave North Korea a nuclear deterrent that the world really fears and takes seriously. He’s not meeting with Moon or Trump to concede to either, but rather, to negotiate and to do so from a position of strength. To paraphrase the U.S. president, Kim wants to be seen as an “honorable man,” with a solid nuclear deterrent in his arsenal.