Can Kim Jong Un really denuclearize?

A fundamental question facing U.S. policymakers is whether North Korea intends to denuclearize. Most Pyongyang-watchers believe this is an impossibility, at least for the near term. The nuclear program has been a dream of North Korean leaders since the end of the Korean War — a deterrent against regime change from the United States, a tool to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul as part of a grand plan to unify the peninsula under North Korean rule.

Regardless of the motive, one question is rarely asked: If Kim Jong Un wanted to denuclearize, could he?

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This question goes to the heart of U.S.-North Korea policy and the strategy of denuclearization. The assumption is that Kim, with a stroke of a pen, could give away his nuclear program in return for economic wealth and prosperity. But the assumption that North Korea’s supreme leader has unchecked decision-making authority is flawed, a basic misunderstanding of how North Korea’s system works.

Yes, Kim is the ultimate decision-maker. His authority is spelled out in the Charter of the Workers’ Party and the country’s constitution. He holds all the titles of power: party chairman, chairman of the Central Military Commission, chairman of the State Affairs Commission, supreme commander of the armed forces. He controls the agenda and policymaking process, but can he make decisions in a vacuum and flaunt the legacy policies of his father and grandfather? Carrying out irreversible denuclearization would require just that.

Yet, Kim’s latitude for action is governed by forces that go beyond titles and formal power. His authority and legitimacy exists along a set of informal rules that undergird the system. These rules are tied to the Kim family’s role and an unwritten contract that the supreme leader will protect and defend family equities and regime security.

There have been times in North Korean history when the leader’s actions encountered pushback, typically from the military. We saw this in the late 1960s when a group of former supporters of Kim Il Sung (the so-called Kapsan faction) took issue with his economic policies and attempts to set up his brother, Kim Yong Ju, as heir apparent. This led to a purge of many of those close to Kim Il Sung. In 1992, in another successor-inspired revolt, elements of the general staff (many educated in the Soviet Union) reportedly began to lay plans to assassinate the Kim family during a military parade. The plot was uncovered and many officers and their families were executed.

In 2009, Kim Jong Il had to do an about-face on a currency revaluation designed to solidify control over the economy during the succession process. This reportedly infuriated many within the high command, and the fierce pushback threatened Kim’s plan to name Kim Jong Un as heir. He sent his premier (Kim Yong Il) to meet with party leaders to apologize (and take responsibility) for the decision.

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In March 2010, Kim Jong Il reportedly authorized the sinking of the Cheonan — a South Korean naval vessel that sank in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 seamen — to curry favor with the military, which wanted revenge for a North Korean ship the South Korean navy sank months before. On more than one occasion, Kim Jong Un (like his father) has complained to visitors that he needs to be wary of the old guard and powerful institutions. After the Hanoi summit, vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui commented: “Honestly, our army, people and workers and officials of the munitions industry are sending thousands of petitions to our supreme leadership not to abandon nuclear weapons at any cost.”

The notion, therefore, that Kim could act with impunity is a misinterpretation of his power and a misunderstanding of the dynamics of totalitarian regimes.

Informal power in North Korea has to do with the legitimacy of the ruling family and the wider leadership. Legitimacy is maintained by operating within policy guidelines laid down by the leader’s predecessors. This means that Kim Jong Un can adjust strategies, even institute new policies, as long as he adheres to the broader guidelines that dictate decision-making. He could decide to accelerate or decelerate the nuclear program, or to dismantle pieces of it, but complete, irreversible denuclearization would require first laying the foundation internally.

Kim’s legitimacy is based on Byungjin — the dual development of the nuclear program and the economy. Since he has not made the economic piece of this equation work, his legitimacy (in terms of policy) rests solely on the nuclear program. To give it up without having something else in its place could erode Kim’s personal legitimacy (tied to his bloodline).

How would he go about laying this foundation? The process likely would begin by reaching out to key interlocutors and allies to ensure support within the old guard. He would have to secure buy-in from the Kim family, the party, military and internal security. He would need to make a cogent argument for sacrificing the nuclear program, and provide assurances that the United States and international community would follow through on any agreement.

This would be difficult to pull off if North Korea had to agree to denuclearize on the front end; Kim could more easily agree to a phased process that shows results for sacrifices made. Viewed this way, it is not surprising that Kim balked at President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE’s “grand bargain” offer in Hanoi. The trust to make a deal just does not exist.

After securing buy-in from key elements of the leadership, Kim would have to socialize the decision to invalidate guidelines set down by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. After all, his father’s legacy is directly tied to the nuclear program. This would mean holding party meetings across the country, and then a party congress at which Kim would announce the new policy line. Then, the Supreme People’s Assembly would meet to revise the constitution’s reference to North Korea as a “nuclear-armed state.”

North Korea would broadcast this process to the world as Kim deciding to take the regime in a new direction. We have seen none of this, so it is frankly ridiculous to expect that Kim could simply decide upon denuclearization and deem it so.  

North Korea’s nuclear program is not for sale, although it might rent out or sideline pieces of it temporarily. In time, through phased negotiation, it might be possible for Kim and his regime to embrace unilateral denuclearization, but that will take years, if not decades. It will require a buildup of trust between North Korea and the United States, and economic benefits that pay off for North Korea’s elite and, hopefully, the wider population.

Only then could Kim foresee a future where he is celebrated as the father of economic reform, rather than tolerated as a third-generation despot with nuclear weapons.

Ken E. Gause directs the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, a defense think tank located in northern Virginia. He is  the author of “North Korean House of Cards” and the Jamestown Foundation’s white paper, “Assessing North Korea’s Nuclear Doctrine and the Prospects for Denuclearization: Diplomacy in the Land of No Good Options.” Follow CNA on Twitter @CNA_org.