A former high-level CIA official focused on North Korea offered a dim assessment Friday of the likelihood Kim Jong-un is serious about abandoning his nuclear program — asserting that Washington must remain sober in its analysis of the North Korean leader’s motives as President Trump heads into a major summit with him next week.
“Nuclear weapons are a part of North Korea’s national identity,” said Jung H. Pak, who held senior U.S. intelligence positions prior to becoming a private analyst with the Brookings Institution. “It’s in their constitution. It’s in their art. It’s in their education system. It’s in the way that people talk about things to themselves. It is the guarantor of North Korea’s status and it’s the guarantor of Kim.
“Unless we see a difference in the way, or any attempt at shaking down that ideological infrastructure of North Korea’s nuclear identity, then I don’t see denuclearization as something that is a realistic goal,” Ms. Pak said at an event hosted Friday by the Center for New American Security in Washington.
Currently a senior fellow at Brookings, Ms. Pak added that the notion Mr. Kim is serious about abandoning a program his father and grandfather worked for decades to build remains a prickly one for many in U.S. national security circles to swallow.
“Is he really sincere?” Ms. Pak said. “The South Koreans are saying it. Our president is saying that Kim is sincere. Our secretary of state, former CIA director, [Mike Pompeo] is telling us that Kim is sincere, so that gives us a lot of food for thought … or requires some checking of our assumptions about what really is driving Kim.”
Analysts are chewing over the issue against a backdrop of skepticism that Mr. Kim will embrace denuclearization in exchange for financial sanctions relief and U.S. economic assistance, such as the introduction into the North Korean economy of American food chains and technology companies.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo have promised U.S. support in developing North Korea’s economy if Mr. Kim agrees to complete and verifiable abandonment of his nuclear program, which Pyongyang built in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The program in recent years has spawned American fears that North Korea may have atomic warheads small enough to put on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles capable of targeting the U.S. mainland.
Such fears loom over the highly-anticipated and historic summit between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump, which is slated to take place Tuesday morning in Singapore — or Monday night at roughly 9 p.m. EST.
Analysts say even if a major denuclearization agreement is not inked quickly, the summit could still be a success toward peace and diplomatic negotiations rather than brinkmanship and potential war with North Korea. But some argue the administration should be wary about getting carried away with the hype and photo opportunities at a summit that risks legitimizing Mr. Kim and the “nuclear-armed nation status” that many intelligence experts believe remains North Korea’s core goal.
“For Kim, I think we have to remember that the iconography of the nuclear weapons program over the past seven years has included Kim front and center of that program,” Ms. Pak said. “He’s touching the nuclear warhead. He’s talking earnestly with the nuclear scientists and the missile technicians. He’s at every ballistic missile test.
“That said, I think that we have to see what Kim is willing to give to build up his economy in the way that he says he wants to do,” she said. “But I think we have to be very clear. Kim is not a businessman — Kim is someone, if we believe him, he is somebody who has completed a project that his grandfather started and his father nurtured over the past 60 years.
“So to give that away for a burger franchise or for American technology experts to go into North Korea, I think would be a misguided way of thinking about how to make policy,” Ms. Pak said. “Because if that’s your assumption about North Korea then you’re going to have a set of policy outcomes that don’t necessarily comport with reality.”