Will Kim Jong-un Trade His Nuclear Arsenal to Rebuild Economy?

Kim Jong-un of North Korea in a photo by the official Korean Central News Agency from a performance in Pyongyang on Monday. Some political analysts believe Mr. Kim is prepared to bargain away nuclear weapons to achieve the sort of rapid economic growth seen in China.

SEOUL, South Korea — For as long as Kim Jong-un has been North Korea’s leader, he has called for the simultaneous pursuit of nuclear weapons and economic growth with the aim of making the nation a “great socialist nuclear power.”

On Saturday, however, Mr. Kim abruptly announced he was retiring his signature policy, known as byungjin, or “parallel advance.”

The strategy has been at the center of his government’s propaganda and is enshrined in the charter of the governing Workers’ Party. But Mr. Kim said it was now time to adopt a “new strategic line” and focus the nation’s resources on rebuilding its economy.

As for nuclear weapons, he essentially declared that mission accomplished, saying North Korea no longer needed to test long-range missiles or atomic bombs and would close its only known nuclear test site. The byungjin policy, he said, already had achieved a “great victory” — an arsenal capable of deterring the nation’s enemies.

Mr. Kim’s pivot away from nuclear testing and toward the economy came just days before a scheduled meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and weeks before his planned summit meeting with President Trump.

Despite lingering doubts about his nation’s ability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear weapon, Mr. Kim appeared to be making clear he intends to enter negotiations with Washington the way the Soviets did decades ago, as an established nuclear power.

The big question is whether he will relinquish his nuclear weapons.

South Korean policymakers argue that Mr. Kim is signaling a willingness to dismantle his nuclear arsenal for the right incentives, including economic aid, a peace treaty and other security guarantees from Washington — measures he needs to rebuild the North’s economy.

“He is seeking the kind of rapid economic growth seen in China,” said Lee Jong-seok, a former unification minister of South Korea. “The North Korea he envisions is different from his father’s North Korea.”

Mr. Lee also noted: “We have looked only on the nuclear side of Kim Jong-un’s rule, trying hard not to look at the other side. He is ready to bargain away nuclear weapons for the sake of economic development. If he were content with just feeding his people three meals a day, he would not give up his nuclear weapons.”

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, a research think tank in South Korea, said Mr. Kim’s announcement would further raise “his people’s expectation for economic improvement.”

But North Korea has long said that its nuclear weapons are not bargaining chips, and Mr. Kim himself has called them “a treasured sword of justice” and “a powerful deterrent firmly safeguarding” his people’s “rights to existence.”

Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, called Mr. Kim’s decision just a replay of an old North Korean tactic — trying to confuse enemies with dramatic gestures in an attempt to win concessions, without ever intending to give up nuclear weapons.

“History repeats itself as farce,” he said, adding: “Kim Jong-un’s ploys are unoriginal and rather lazy.”

American officials say they have been repeatedly cheated by the North in previous talks on denuclearization. A deal in 1994 eventually collapsed when the United States accused the North of secretly enriching uranium. Another deal in 2005 fell apart in a dispute over how to verify a nuclear freeze. In 2012, the North launched a long-range rocket after agreeing to a moratorium on missile testing.

Mr. Kim’s decision to make the economy the nation’s priority and suspend nuclear tests was unanimously adopted at a Workers’ Party meeting on Friday. He also pledged to neither use nor proliferate nuclear weapons unless faced with a nuclear threat.

Washington, Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo welcomed the move, although they cautioned that the suspension of tests was just one step toward denuclearization. The announcement made no mention of further steps.

Mr. Kim did pledge to create an “international environment favorable for the socialist economic construction.” Analysts said that will give him political cover for negotiating reductions in his arsenal.

“This reads more like an arms-control offer from a nuclear nation than an isolated regime coerced into disarmament,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists. “It is a carefully circumscribed statement. It describes a partial cap of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs but not disarmament. Even under these restrictions, North Korea could continue to expand its capabilities significantly.”

But Mr. Mount said that a suspension of testing is important because “by most technical or military standards, North Korea has not completed an advanced nuclear arsenal.”

“It would be a significant accomplishment to halt their progress while we negotiate steps to roll back these programs,” he added.

In recent weeks, some officials and analysts in South Korea have argued that a much more fundamental shift might be underway in North Korea.

Under byungjin, Mr. Kim accelerated the North’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs, declaring late last year that it had completed a nuclear deterrent. At the same time, he has introduced market-oriented reforms, initiating a building boom in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

He also has announced plans to open special economic zones in his country, where he hopes to attract foreign investors, a dream that can be realized only if international sanctions against North Korea are eased.

Mr. Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, ruled North Korea with the songun, or “military first,” policy, which focused resources on the military, favoring top generals with lucrative rights to export minerals and seafood. The military stood behind him as he led the country through a famine in the 1990s that killed more than two million people.

In 2012, in his first public speech as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un said he would not let his people “tighten their belt again,” a startling admission of failure by a member of a ruling family that is seen as godlike and faultless.

In 2013, his Workers’ Party adopted the byungjin policy, arguing that economic growth could occur only if the nation was secure. In a party congress in 2016, Mr. Kim said that byungjin was not a temporary step but a permanent strategy. In another party meeting in October, he said North Korea was “absolutely right” when it pursued byungjin.

Exaggerating American hostility and creating a sense of empowerment through nuclear weapons has become a hallmark of state propaganda legitimizing Mr. Kim’s dynastic rule. Mr. Kim also has engineered bloody purges, killing scores of top generals, his uncle and his half brother, to establish unchallenged authority.

Mr. Kim began his shift toward declaring victory on the nuclear front with a speech on New Year’s Day in which he said the United States would never “dare to ignite a war against me and our country.” He has since engaged in a diplomatic whirlwind, visiting Beijing to confer with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and initiating the upcoming meetings with President Moon and President Trump.

His ultimate motives remain uncertain. Some analysts say that Mr. Kim is driven by a desperate need to ease sanctions that have crippled his country, and may try to get away with a temporary and deceptive freeze of his nuclear program. Others argue that he is acting in confidence that his nuclear weapons give him new leverage to rebuild the economy.

If Mr. Kim is serious about economic growth, though, he will need the world’s help, analysts say. They point to the example set in the 1980s by China’s paramount leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, whose opening to the West was critical to his country’s boom.

“Whether Kim Jong-un will become the Deng Xiaoping of North Korea will depend on whether the international community, including the United States and South Korea, can provide security guarantees and opportunities for economic development so that it will denuclearize,” Mr. Cheong said.

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