Why North Korea's Kim Jong Un will never surrender his nukes

Key Points
  • Halting missile launches and dismantling test sites do not reflect a commitment to roll back current nuclear capacities, experts warn.
  • North Korea may stall future nuclear development but it's still widely expected to hold onto its nuclear arsenal, they say.
US-North Korea talks 'moving more quickly than expected'

North Korea's Kim Jong Un may be willing to discuss his country's nuclear arsenal with President Donald Trump on Tuesday, but that doesn't mean the reclusive regime will curtail or halt existing programs, strategists told CNBC.

Nuclear prowess is a crucial component of Pyongyang's identity. The pariah state has even built monuments at nuclear test sites to memorialize past intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

Still, the isolated country has promised to close its main nuclear test site, its state-run Korean Central News Agency reported in April. The news prompted Trump 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.

Halting tests and missile launches and dismantling sites don't reflect a commitment to roll back nuclear capacities and hardware, warned Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, a Beijing-based policy think tank.

Pompeo: North Korea is willing to denuclearize

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

If the pariah state stalls nuclear development at present levels, then "that, in itself, is a bit of progress," said Robert Kelly, associate professor at Pusan National University. But he also 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."

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un leaves the Peace House after the Inter-Korean Summit and dinner on April 27, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea.
Korea Summit Press | Getty Images

It's widely believed that the White House and Pyongyang operate on different understandings of the concept of denuclearization, 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 only agree to do so 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, Kelly predicted.

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

Kim's olive branch is simply a part of his 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 late father, 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.

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