What exactly do the North Koreans mean when they say they’re willing to denuclearize? And how exactly would they do so? These are the key mysteries at the heart of the upcoming Trump-Kim summit—and indeed they threatened to derail the whole thing this week when Kim Jong Un objected to National-Security Adviser John Bolton’s vision for it. In a statement attributed to Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea chastised Bolton for his invocation of the “Libya model” of unilateral denuclearization as a template, noting that the “world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met miserable [fates].” The White House quickly walked back Bolton’s remarks.
The exchange did little to clarify how the U.S. plans to achieve denuclearization. But for a group of former U.S. government officials who have been meeting with North Korean officials over the past decade, North Korea’s own plans are anything but hidden. A series of meetings with North Korean officials in 2013, which I attended along with other former U.S. officials, holds valuable clues—and they show that the North Koreans have given a great deal of thought to denuclearization and almost certainly have a concrete plan of action for the upcoming summit, whether the White House does or not.
Those meetings happened five years ago, but they took place at the very beginning stages of the nuclear strategy Kim is executing to such dramatic effect now. At the time, Kim Jong Un had just enshrined his byungjin policy, stating that the North intended to develop a nuclear arsenal as a shield behind which it could modernize its economy. North Korean officials explained in these private sessions that Kim had issued the new policy after concluding that his country needed more nuclear weapons to deter the United States. It wasn’t just that the North Koreans were concerned about escalating tensions in late 2012 and early 2013, as well as continuing flights of nuclear-capable U.S. bombers over the Korean Peninsula. The North Koreans also felt Washington and Seoul thought they could bully the North during the leadership transition that had begun with the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011. One North Korean official I spoke to then said “nuclear” equaled “survival.”