North Korea released an amended version of its constitution last Thursday, in which the preface continues to identify the country as a nuclear weapons state. This language indicates that Kim Jong Un’s true intent for nuclear negotiations is to preserve his nuclear arsenal despite U.S. demands for verifiable denuclearization.
North Korea’s legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), revised the constitution when it met in April, yet Pyongyang did not release the full text of the revised document until last week. One notable change to the constitution is Kim Jong Un’s new status as North Korea’s official head of state, a position previously held by a figurehead. The SPA also deleted multiple references to the Songun, or “military-first,” policy of Kim’s father, former leader Kim Jong Il. This may point toward a stronger emphasis in Pyongyang on economic reforms and strengthening the nation’s science and technology sectors. It would be a mistake, however, to infer that Kim Jong Un is shifting his objectives away from national militarization.
The prefaces of both this and earlier 2016 versions of North Korea’s constitution herald the late Kim Jong Il for his leadership and in helping North Korea become a “nuclear state and invincible military force.” The persistence of this language in the revised constitution strongly suggests that Kim was not sincere when he pledged to denuclearize at his summit meetings with the U.S. and South Korean presidents. Moreover, the consistency between the old and new preface seemingly confirms the suspicions raised by the leak of a North Korean military document that defined the goal of Kim’s meeting with Trump in Hanoi as acceptance of North Korea’s status as a “global nuclear strategic state.”
For Kim, nuclear weapons not only provide security against foreign adversaries, but also political legitimacy at home. In 2013, Kim’s laid out his new byungjin line policy, which calls for the simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and economic modernization. In November 2017, Kim marked the completion of the first phase of byungjin when he announced North Korea’s completion of the “national nuclear force.” The narrative Kim has built around nuclear weapons illustrate how they provide an internal security guarantee for his regime.
Pyongyang’s attachment to nuclear weapons should come as no surprise. The regime’s track record of cheating on past agreements should remind Washington that Pyongyang’s main purpose for negotiations is to extract concessions, often in the form of sanctions relief. This will only change if the U.S. can persuade Kim that he has more to lose than to gain by holding onto his nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and its allies therefore should consider ramping up sanctions and diplomatic and military pressure to show Pyongyang the immense costs of retaining its nuclear arsenal. Alternatives to pressure – namely, premature sanctions relief and other economic concessions – will only embolden Kim to extort more rewards while leaving his weapons intact.
Fortunately, last week, the State Department rejected rumors that the U.S. was considering an offer to North Korea of 12- to 18-months relief from UN Security Council sanctions in exchange for Pyongyang dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facility and freezing its nuclear weapons program. Such a deal would be flawed because it reduces pressure without a guarantee Kim would ever dismantle North Korea’s other nuclear facilities. Only by maximizing the various sources of its leverage can the U.S. shape the conditions for productive talks.
Mathew Ha is a research associate focused on North Korea at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.