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Kim Jong Un is 'stealing pages from his daddy's book': Experts say North Korea won't give up nukes

  • Halting missile launches and dismantling test sites do not reflect a commitment to roll back current nuclear capacities, experts warned.
  • North Korea may stall future nuclear development but it's still widely expected to hold onto its current nuclear arsenal, they said.

Pyongyang, this weekend, said it suspended nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches ahead of summits with Seoul and Washington. But that in no way means the reclusive regime will curtail or halt its existing programs, strategists told CNBC.

Nuclear prowess is a crucial component of North Korea's identity. Not only does ruler Kim Jong Un govern the nation on a policy known as byungjin — the parallel pursuit of nuclear weapons development and economic growth — but the pariah state has even built monuments at nuclear test sites to memorialize past ICBM tests.

The country's weekend statement, as reported by the state-run Korean Central News Agency following a plenary session of the ruling Worker's Party's top officials, also indicated the looming closure of a main nuclear test site.

But halting tests and missile launches as well as dismantling sites do not reflect a commitment to roll back current nuclear capacities and hardware, warned Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, a Beijing-based policy think tank.

When North Korea said it will refrain from acts prohibited under multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions, that doesn't mean it will give up the nuclear capability it's already attained, echoed Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean studies professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School.

If the pariah state stalls nuclear development at present levels, "that, in itself, is a bit of progress," said Robert Kelly, associate professor at Pusan National University. But like others, he said he doesn't think Kim will budge on existing programs: "It would be remarkable if they spent 40 years developing these weapons and then give them away."

The news prompted President Donald Trump, who is expected to meet Kim in May or June, to declare on Twitter that North Korea had agreed to "denuclearization" even though KCNA's statement did not use that term or express that sentiment.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017.
KCNA | Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017.

It's widely believed that the White House and Pyongyang operate on different understandings of the concept, one of the major factors seen complicating negotiations at the Trump-Kim summit. For the U.S., the term means North Korea relinquishing nuclear weapons, but Pyongyang may agree to do so only if certain conditions, such as terminating America's military presence in South Korea, are fulfilled.

The North Koreans will simply walk out of the room if U.S. officials demand complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, according to Kelly.

Kim's government may also be fearful of following the same paths as Ukraine and Libya.

"North Korea looks at what happened to countries that divested themselves of a nuclear or weapons of mass destruction deterrent, and realizes that as soon as they sacrifice their deterrent, they will suddenly become that much more vulnerable to outside interference," said Anthony Rinna, an analyst at research group SinoNK.

All part of Kim's plan

Last week's promises are simply a part of Kim's two-phased nuclear strategy, according to Zhao.

In phase one, the rogue state sought to obtain nuclear deterrence regardless of economic sanctions and political isolation, he explained. Now, the country has entered phase two, in which it seeks to keep existing nuclear capabilities and develop stable ties with the international community on that basis, he continued.

For some, the latest developments are just another case of history repeating itself.

Kim's father, the late Kim Jong Il, "played all the great leaders" in the early 2000s by calling for meetings with Washington, Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo only to offer them "repeated lies of denuclearization," said Lee.

"Kim Jong Un is simply stealing pages from his daddy's book," he added.