Reading North Korean Intent: The Importance of What Is and Is Not Said

In the current pre-meeting phase, it would make little sense for Pyongyang to lean too far forward in its public statements. Overall, although Pyongyang has not explicitly touched on the subject of a possible Kim-Trump summit through its state-sponsored media apparatus, North Korea has, since March 9, been adjusting and trimming its public posture in preparation for moving to engage the US should the two sides firm up plans for a date and venue. Furthermore, it is not unusual for DPRK media not to report a North Korean leader’s remarks on denuclearization in conversations with the Chinese—as happened recently with Kim’s remarks to Xi Jinping reported by Xinhua but not KCNA. This “silence,” as many pundits have labeled it, is not unusual. In fact, it is not even really “silence.” The North has been clearly signaling—both in what it has and what it hasn’t said—a very different posture than it did last year.

For starters, Pyongyang has virtually stopped referring to its nuclear program over the past three weeks, ever since the visit to Washington by two ROK envoys who had just met with Kim Jong Un. At the same time, it has begun to open up space for a negotiating position to deal with the issue. A March 23 Rodong Sinmun article characterized sanctions as “the main contents of the US hostile policy.” That linkage raises the possibility that Pyongyang could deliberately portray movement on easing sanctions as a lessening of the US “hostile policy.” In turn, since the North’s consistent position has been that its nuclear program was a result of US hostile policy, any movement on the latter could give Pyongyang justification for movement on the former.

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About the author

Robert Carlin