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Will Kim's Claim in Constitution Weaken Efforts to Denuclearize?

FILE - People watch a TV news program reporting about North Korea's test-fire of a "new-type tactical guided weapon," with a file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, April 18, 2019.
FILE - People watch a TV news program reporting about North Korea's test-fire of a "new-type tactical guided weapon," with a file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, April 18, 2019.

North Korean leader calls himself head of a 'nuclear weapons state' in a newly amended constitution.

North Korea's Kim Jong Un may try to bolster his regime's legitimacy by calling himself head of a "nuclear weapons state" in a newly amended constitution, but outside Pyongyang, the refreshed title appears to weaken his professed commitment to denuclearization, experts say.

"It's important to understand that he's a third-generation leader, which means that his legitimacy is inherently weaker than that of his father and grandfather," said Ken Gause, director of the adversary analytics program at CNA, a Virginia-based think tank.

Kim, as a third dynastic leader of the authoritarian regime that his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, founded in 1948 and his father, Kim Jong Il, continued, has been ruling North Korea for eight years since his father's death.

His grandfather, hailed as the "Great Leader," started North Korea's nuclear program that Kim's father advanced.

Struggling with legacy

Experts said that as Kim has followed the legacy of his predecessors, he may be struggling to keep his own legacy from eroding.

Dennis Wilder, former CIA deputy assistant director for East Asia and now a professor at Georgetown University, said, "The original revolutionary leader always has the highest level of legitimacy possible."

The legitimacy lessens for successive leaders, he said, “because they did not create the heroic myth themselves. They are living off the heroic myth, heroic vision and legacy of the founder."

The country's newly amended constitution officially makes Kim head of state by appointing him chair of the State Affairs Commission, the country's top governing body. It also calls Kim the "commander in chief" of "a nuclear weapons state."

The constitution was amended in April but became publicly available on the country's propaganda website Naenara last week.

The previous constitution called Kim the "supreme leader" with command over North Korea's "overall military forces."

"One thing that Kim wanted to do with this constitution was [set up] the legitimacy process that surrounds him," said Gause. "The only source of legitimacy that he has right now is the development of the nuclear program. … Declaring North Korea as a nuclear power, that reflects on him as a great leader … who completed something that his grandfather and father started … [and it] adds to his legitimacy."

Wilder said, "It's a consolidation of power." He continued, "It's what these kinds of leaders do. They give themselves all sorts of titles. … They are trying to create the heroic myth for themselves, of who they are."

Experts said Kim might have felt the need to reinforce his legitimacy to quell opposition to his willingness to denuclearize, at least as expressed to the outside world, and diplomatic overtures to President Donald Trump.

Joel Wit, director of 38 North, a website focusing on North Korea, said, "That's what the current debate inside [North Korea] is all about, Kim's denuclearization policy."

"There are people who don't like it," added Wit, a former State Department official who negotiated with North Korea in the 1990s.

In February, The Wall Street Journal reported that Kim was cracking down on opponents of his diplomatic outreach to the U.S.

No evidence of dissent

Wilder said that while there is no substantial evidence pointing to outright dissent within Kim's regime, it is likely to exist, based on what researchers have divined from records of other autocratic countries after a regime collapse.

"One thing that is absolutely certain to me is … [autocratic countries] are much more fractious and difficult on the inside than we know," said Wilder. "It's only after a regime like this collapses that you find out about all of that … because all we see is the front that they put up."

Another potential drag on Kim's power is North Korea's faltering economy, which may be struggling under sanctions imposed since 2016.

Wilder said, "He needs sanctions relief … at some point if he's going to survive in the power [struggle]." He added, "He knows that at some point, he's going to have an internal revolt on his hands because of the abysmal conditions in which most North Koreans live."

American-led sanctions on much-needed oil imports and dollar-earning coal exports have slowly strangled North Korea's state-run factories and mines, putting workers out of jobs. Predicted famines are expected to hurt North Koreans.

Sanctions over North Korea's nuclear weapons are also testing the loyalty of elites, including party and military leaders, as it becomes harder for them to make money outside North Korea.

Scott Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korea Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "In terms of satisfying North Korean elites, the relaxation of sanctions is a powerful tangible benefit."

Kim reportedly called for security guarantees during discussions of sanctions relief with the presidents of China, Russia and the U.S. this year. Kim has been seeking a guarantee that the U.S. will not remove him from power.

Gause said that was Kim's way of leveraging his bargaining position.

"What he really wants is the sanctions relief," Gause said. "But he knows that if he looks too weak and too dependent on sanctions relief, then the United States is not going to give up very much in that in that arena."

Kim said he was willing to denuclearize, according to experts, to get diplomatic engagement with Trump and try to extract sanctions relief from the U.S.

Hanoi summit

Before the Hanoi summit ended abruptly, Kim demanded the U.S. end sanctions in exchange for a partial dismantling of a North Korean nuclear facility.

Wilder said, "He is saying that [about denuclearization] because he's trying to get the sanctions lifted." He continued, "He realizes that in order to negotiate, he has to say that. But the difficulty is that he has shown no real willingness recently to actually sit down and begin to define denuclearization, which leads many of us to believe that he has actually no interest in denuclearization."

Bruce Klingner, former CIA deputy division chief for Korea and a current senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said, "For decades, Pyongyang has used negotiations to obtain benefits without fully implementing its commitments."

The North Korean Foreign Ministry said this week that it could stop its efforts to resume dialogue with Washington as it complained about a planned U.S.-South Korean military drill. The warning came about two weeks after Trump met Kim for a sudden summit at the Korean border in June, when the two agreed to restart the talks that had been stalled.

Experts said North Korea needs to change statements it makes internally to its government, such as the phrase describing itself as a nuclear weapons state, in order to show that it is serious about denuclearization.

"That clause [claiming itself as a nuclear weapons state] in the North Korean constitution is a hindrance to the credibility of their commitment [to denuclearization] ... unless it's changed," Snyder said.

Gause said, "The United States would have to insist as part of the negotiations that North Korea remove the statement from its constitution." He added, "Otherwise, it creates an inherent contradiction between the negotiations going on between the U.S. and North Korea to denuclearize and communications and narratives that North Korea is sending to its own people, that it is a nuclear weapons state."

Wilder thinks Kim will not give up nuclear weapons unless the survival of his regime is at stake.

"I've never thought he was going to give them up, unless we put him in a position where he had to choose between his nuclear weapons and the survivability of the government of North Korea," said Wilder. "Then he will give up his nuclear weapons because he wants to survive. He's not suicidal."