Interview: ‘Kim Jong Un is Thinking About How to Keep His Nuclear Assets’

A former North Korean diplomat discusses why Kim won’t agree to an irreversible denuclearization.

Former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom Thae Yong-ho testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 1, 2017.

Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, defected with his family to South Korea in 2016. Following last week’s historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Thae told RFA’s Korean Service that he believes the North will never agree to end its weapons program through a “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) process. Instead, he said, Pyongyang will likely seek a way to maintain its current nuclear status, while “denuclearizing the Korean peninsula,” as the two sides agreed, according to its own definition.

RFA: The leaders of the South and North agreed to cooperate for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but Kim Jong Un did not mention anything about denuclearization in his speech after signing the “Panmunjom Declaration.” What is your opinion on this?

Thae Yong-ho: Kim Jong Un considers himself as a “leader of a nuclear state,” and that denuclearization is an issue that needs to be discussed with another nuclear state—the U.S. … Kim Jong Un’s target is the U.S.-North Korea summit [expected in June or July]. Kim would consider a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump a diplomatic victory.

President Trump’s meeting with the leader of North Korea, a country that the U.S. has described as “evil,” is North Korea’s chance to show the world that it is a “normal nation.” [Kim’s grandfather and father] Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il tried very hard to meet with U.S. presidents in the past for a handshake photo, but it didn’t happen. If Kim Jong Un makes it happen, it will be a big propaganda coup for the North.

RFA: North Korea said that they would invite international experts and the press when they remove their nuclear sites. What do you think North Korea’s intention is?

Thae Yong-ho: Kim Jong Un is thinking about how to keep his nuclear assets—this is the biggest issue. Kim likely believes that “with nuclear power in my hands, I can give up on everything else.” For North Korea, nuclear test sites are the “past.” Having ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) capability is the North’s “future.” Recently North Korea came to know that it is impossible to reach for their future goal, because of strict international sanctions. Kim Jong Un is now willing to give up the “future” and the “past,” but probably will work to keep what he currently has [nuclear weapons]. Inviting international press and experts when removing nuclear test sites is a part of North Korea’s strategic plan.

RFA: The main agenda of the U.S.-North summit will be North Korea’s denuclearization. The U.S. is requesting a “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID).”

Thae Yong-ho: The South and North agreed to “denuclearize the Korean peninsula,” but that statement is vague. Additionally, the Panmunjom Declaration states that not just the “North,” but the “South and North” will denuclearize the peninsula … The North has always wanted three things: First, the U.S. to withdraw its nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula. That happened in 1991. Second, to stop the U.S. from deploying nuclear weapons or strategic assets to the peninsula and the region—the North will make these requests to the U.S. as part of “denuclearization” negotiations. Third, that the U.S. announce it will not use nuclear weapons on the peninsula.

The U.S. wants CVID from North Korea, meaning random access to inspections … But there are no prior examples of CVID in history. It could be seen as an infringement on a nation’s autonomy. I think there is a very low possibility that North Korea accepts the principles of CVID. Besides nuclear and missile facilities, there are many sensitive places that North Korea cannot open to the outside. Political prison camps are one such example … If North Korea accepts, they would eventually have to show the whole world that they have committed crimes against humanity, and would not be able to maintain its current system.

RFA: What do you think will be North Korea’s strategy for the U.S.-North summit?

Thae Yong-ho: The worst outcome for the U.S.-North summit would be a return to the South-North “Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” from 1991. At that time, the South and North decided to designate inspection targets for denuclearization through mutual agreement … So there were no proper inspections. If Trump agrees to this type of [inspection], it will have the same outcome as the past agreement.

RFA: President Trump said he would leave the negotiation table if North Korea does not accept CVID. If that happens, what do you think North Korea’s next move would be?

Thae Yong-ho: If that happens, North Korea will say this to the world: “We sincerely tried for nuclear removal and were ready to accept U.S. requirements, but the U.S. insisted on unreasonable conditions.” [CVID] ultimately means that we do not accept North Korean sovereignty, so the North will argue over this and will lobby for international support.

Reported by Yong Jae Mok for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun.