North Korea Proceeds Down a Nuclear Path

Reports about the unusual “closed-door meeting” of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Military Commission (CMC)[1] on July 18 suggested that North Korea remains committed to its strategic weapons development and production plan, including its nuclear weapons. This meeting builds on recent statements by North Korean officials implying that Pyongyang will proceed with its strategic weapons plans and that the moratorium on nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile testing is off the table.

While the omission of the word “nuclear” in North Korean coverage of the CMC meeting has led to speculation that the North is softening its position, photographs of the meeting do not support that conclusion. In fact, they make clear that the nuclear program is still a centerpiece of the North’s policy.

“Nuclear War Deterrent” vs. “War Deterrent”: Significant?

The CMC meeting echoed wording from the June preliminary meeting, calling for the strengthening of the country’s “war deterrent.”[2] By contrast, reports of the May CMC meeting had referred to the need for further increasing “nuclear war deterrence.”[3]

North Korea may have omitted “nuclear” to dial down the tone of recent messaging, but it does not necessarily translate into actual policy implications. For instance, North Korean state media used “war deterrent” and “nuclear war deterrent” interchangeably during the years that byungjin was the official state policy (2013-2018), when Pyongyang’s openly stated goal was to simultaneously build nuclear forces and develop the economy.[4]

Reading Between the Lines: The Photos

If North Korea’s intention was to modulate the tone of the text by leaving out the word “nuclear,” it made its intent clearer through the photos. By deliberately releasing photos of the CMC’s “closed-door meeting” in which nuclear weapons specialists were present, and even shown speaking, Pyongyang was signaling that its nuclear program remains central to its policy.

Two key figures appearing in the photos were Hong Sung Mu, vice director of the party’s Munitions Industry Department, and Ri Hong Sop, director of the Nuclear Weapons Institute and formerly the head of the Yongbyon Atomic Energy Research Institute. Hong and Ri are widely known as North Korea’s top nuclear weapons developers. Both were prominently shown in photographs with Kim Jong Un at nuclear weapons-related events in 2017, including Kim’s guidance of “the work for nuclear weaponization” that September.[5]

Hong Sung Mu stands up to listen to Kim Jong Un during a closed-door meeting of the CMC (KCNA, July 19, 2020). Pyongyang television footage of the meeting also showed Hong talking to Kim. Seated at the head of the table’s left side is Pak Jong Chon, chief of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Staff and former director of the KPA Artillery Department; seated at the head of the table’s right side is Ri Pyong Chol, director of the party’s Munitions Industry Department.
Seated on the side of the room, away from the main table, are, from left to right: Jo Yong Won, first vice director of the party’s Organization and Guidance Department; Hong Sung Mu, vice director of the party’s Munitions Industry Department; unidentifiable; and Ri Hong Sop, director of the Nuclear Weapons Institute (KCNA, July 19, 2020).

In the Context of Recent Statements

This nuanced treatment of nuclear weapons in CMC meeting coverage is consistent with recent statements by North Korean officials, which indicated denuclearization is off the table for now and North Korea will proceed with its weapons development to cope with US “long-term threats.”

In a press statement marking the second anniversary of the US-DPRK Singapore summit, for instance, Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon explained that denuclearization may be a US goal but is not North Korea’s. He said, “Our Republic’s unchanging strategic goal is to build a more solid force to manage the long-term military threats of the United States.”[6] Underlining the point, Ri’s statement echoed the language of the May CMC meeting, even revealing that the CMC had “discussed the national strategy for nuclear development.”[7]

On July 4, First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said, “We have already formulated a more concrete strategic calculating table to manage long-term US threats. Our national policy will never be adjusted or changed depending on external variables like somebody’s domestic political schedule.”[8]

While Kim Yo Jong’s July 10 press statement seemed more conciliatory in tone than the previous Foreign Ministry statements, the bottom line was consistent with North Korea’s position since the Stockholm talks in October 2019: there will be no denuclearization talks until the US withdraws its “hostile policy.”[9] Kim added that North Korea must plan for “long-term threats” from the US and “strengthen and steadily increase our practical capabilities,” which implied going ahead with North Korea’s weapons development and production plan.

  1. [1]

    The CMC is the highest-level military decision-making body in the party. Under Kim Jong Un, the CMC is reported to have held 13 meetings, four of them since December 2019.

  2. [2]

    “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Enlarged Meeting of WPK Central Military Commission,” KCNA, July 19, 2020; and “Preliminary Meeting for 5th Meeting of 7th WPK Central Military Commission Held,” KCNA, June 24, 2020.

  3. [3]

    “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Enlarged Meeting of WPK Central Military Commission,” KCNA, May 24, 2020.

  4. [4]

    “DPRK Will Bolster Up War Deterrent: Spokesman,” KCNA, March 28, 2014; “U.S. and S. Korean Authorities Warned against Reckless Saber-rattling,” KCNA, March 10, 2015; “DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hits out at UNSC’s Partiality” KCNA, April 26, 2017; “Kim Jong Un Guides Second Test-fire of ICBM Hwasong-14,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, July 29, 2017; and “DPRK Warns U.S. to Wake up from Foolish Dream of Doing Any Harm to DPRK: FM Spokesman,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, July 30, 2017.

  5. [5]

    “경애하는 최고령도자 김정은동지께서 핵무기병기화사업을 지도하시였다,” Rodong Sinmun, p. 1, September 3, 2017.

  6. [6]
  7. [7]

    “Our Message to U.S. is Clear: Ri Son Gwon, Minister of Foreign Affairs of DPRK,” KCNA, June 12, 2020.

  8. [8]

    Translated excerpt from “조선민주주의인민공화국 최선희 외무성 제1부상 미국과는 마주앉을 필요가 없다고 강조,” KCNA, July 4, 2020. The KCNA English version of Choe’s press statement reads “timetable” instead of “calculation table.”

  9. [9]

    “Press Statement by Kim Yo Jong, First Vice Department Director of Central Committee of Workers’ Party of Korea,” KCNA, July 10, 2020.

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