May 28, 2020 | Insight

Kim Jong Un Returns to Preside Over Central Military Commission

May 28, 2020 | Insight

Kim Jong Un Returns to Preside Over Central Military Commission

Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in three weeks to oversee a May 25 meeting of North Korea’s Central Military Commission (CMC). The key takeaway: Pyongyang remains fully committed to developing nuclear weapons.

North Korean state media reported that the meeting addressed “new policies for further increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country.” The Kim regime’s public recommitment to nuclear weapons development serves as both internal and external messaging. Externally, as nuclear negotiations remain deadlocked following the February 2019 Hanoi summit, Kim is signaling to the United States and its allies that Pyongyang has no intention of denuclearizing. Internally, Kim is emphasizing the importance of Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrent to assuage anger among North Korea’s elite, military, and people at the economic hardships they continue to endure for the sake of developing nuclear weapons.

At the Hanoi summit, Kim failed to extort any degree of U.S. sanctions relief to placate his populace. After Washington’s refusal to lift sanctions absent denuclearization, Kim likely hoped doubling down on ideological rhetoric concerning Pyongyang’s nuclear program would help counter increasing popular or elite pressure to alleviate their economic challenges.

Kim may also wield this CMC meeting to reinforce his own commitment to the “Songun,” or military-first, policy. While Songun was primarily associated with his father, Kim Jong Il, the younger Kim never eliminated or replaced it. Rather, he expanded it with his distinct “Byungjin” policy, which called for simultaneous nuclear and economic development. At the CMC meeting, Kim promoted 69 officials involved in the regime’s nuclear and missile programs to senior military posts. The reaffirmation of his commitment to North Korea’s nuclear deterrent conveys that he prioritizes the military’s goals.

Robert O’Brien, the U.S. national security advisor, responded to the CMC meeting with a reminder that North Korea stands to gain economically by relinquishing its nuclear weapons program. Although the Trump administration’s unconventional, top-down diplomacy and the Moon administration’s “peace first” strategy have yet to make substantial progress toward verifiable denuclearization, this failure lies entirely with Kim. He is the one who has rejected substantive working-level negotiations despite earnest efforts from both Washington and Seoul.

The Korean peninsula remains at risk of a catastrophic conflict. The United States and South Korea have deterred conflict on the peninsula for several decades through an iron-clad alliance that ensured military and economic superiority over North Korea. Yet as North Korea continues to move closer to completing its nuclear arsenal, that deterrence is not guaranteed. Admiral Charles Richard, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, warned of a “decisive response” by the United States in such a situation. To avoid such a scenario, South Korea and the United States must maintain a strong alliance that includes extended deterrence and the nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan.

Looking ahead, Kim will likely continue to reject Washington’s offer. He believes that denuclearizing would leave his regime militarily vulnerable to ROK-U.S. forces. Moreover, pursuing a brighter economic future might entail opening up to foreign media and influence, thereby threatening the regime’s control. Thus, Kim likely will continue his “long con” application of political warfare, whereby Pyongyang seeks to coerce and entice Washington, South Korea, and other U.S. allies into making economic concessions while North Korea inches closer to de facto recognition as a nuclear power.

Washington’s best chance to achieve denuclearization is to persuade Kim and, more important, North Korea’s elite that retaining nuclear weapons will bring more harm than good and ultimately threaten the regime. Kim historically has responded to internal pressures. Washington and its allies should therefore employ a coordinated political warfare strategy that incorporates all elements of national power – diplomatic, military, economic, and informational – while simultaneously strengthening the alliance structure in the region. Such a concerted and multifaceted effort is essential to change Kim’s strategic perspective.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mathew Ha is a research analyst. Both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David, Mathew, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David and Mathew on Twitter @davidmaxwell161 and @matjunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power North Korea Sanctions and Illicit Finance