Korea

North Korea’s Nuclear Disappearing Act

Written by Jeffrey Lewis

There were no major surprises in North Korea’s September 9 military parade.

Although North Korea has not yet broadcast the parade, images taken by journalists in Pyongyang show that the parade line-up was identical to the lineup seen in a satellite image taken on August 22. Contrary to some earlier prognostications, the parade on Sunday was smaller than the one in February, smaller than past parades, and did not include any nuclear-armed systems.

While there were some interesting developments among conventional systems, the only missile systems were decidedly defensive: the Kumsong-3 coastal defense cruise missile and the KN-06 surface-to-air missile. And most important these are not nuclear-armed systems.

The president immediately took to Twitter to celebrate the lack of ICBMs, citing it as a sign of North Korea’s commitment to “denuclearization”—a term that the president and his national-security team often mistakenly use as a synonym for “disarmament.” In fact, that word means something different. The only thing North Korea denuclearized on Sunday, my friend Josh Pollack noted wryly, was Kim Il-sung Square.

Still, the decision to hold out nuclear-armed ICBMs was a decision. And that decision deserves some thought.

One explanation was that the lack of ICBMs may well have been China’s price for sending Li Zhanshu, a member of China’s Politburo. While President Donald Trump has attacked China for interfering in his diplomacy—a claim that no serious analyst I know finds credible—Beijing may well have asked North Korea to tone down the parade.

But it seems likely that Kim Jong-un paid that cost willingly, given that he also sent a letter to Donald Trump. Kim has figured out that, having completed North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, he can have his cake and eat it, too.

By denuclearization, Kim Jong-un doesn’t mean giving up his nuclear weapons. Instead, he means a process by which nuclear weapons recede into the background. He’s willing forego nuclear testing and certain missile tests.

Read more at National Interest

About the author

Jeffrey Lewis

Jeffrey Lewis is Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Monterey Institute of International Studies.