SEOUL — As the presidents of South Korea and the United States prepare for summits with the previously reclusive Kim Jong Un, there has been lots of conjecture about what, exactly, the North Korean leader is prepared to discuss.
North Korea is willing to negotiate with the United States about potential denuclearization, Trump administration officials said this month. North Korea won’t insist on U.S. troops being withdrawn from the peninsula as part of any deal, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Thursday.
But North Korea has said very little about all this — and that has plenty of people worried that expectations for this summit are too high.
“I sure wish KCNA were the one saying this stuff,” Robert E. Kelly, a political scientist at Pusan National University in South Korea, wrote on Twitter after Moon said that North Korea was “not making demands that the U.S. cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of the U.S. forces in Korea.” The Korean Central News Agency is the one of the state’s main mouthpieces in the North.
Over the past quarter-century, it has always paid to be doubtful about North Korea’s promises — like after the 1992 denuclearization deal with South Korea. Or after the 1994 denuclearization deal with the United States. Or after the 2005 denuclearization deal with its four neighbors and the United States. Or after the 2012 denuclearization deal with Washington.
As a result, many North Korea policy experts are casting doubt on the suggestion that Kim, who has trumpeted North Korea’s nuclear achievements as a way to inject some legitimacy into his reign, would now suddenly give them up.
It’s more likely that he’s playing for time, they say — staving off a U.S. invasion, showing China that it doesn’t need to implement sanctions quite so strictly, betting that President Trump won’t be around long enough to see any deal through.
The fact that North Korea’s state media, while briefly alluding to the planned summit with Trump, has said nothing about denuclearization feeds into this narrative.
But this overlooks the fact that there are many other things North Korea is not talking about. It’s not talking about the U.S. strike on Syria, it’s not talking about the U.S. military conducting drills in South Korea, and it’s not talking about the “heinous” and “hostile” United States.
It hasn’t even commented on the return of national security adviser John Bolton, a man the regime once derided as “human scum and a bloodsucker.”
And it hasn’t been using one of its favorite phrases, the one about being a “strong nuclear power.” It’s a phrase that was used almost every day in the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, for months on end. But it hasn’t appeared since March 10 — the day after Trump agreed to meet with Kim, 34.
“That’s not a coincidence,” said Peter Ward, a North Korea researcher at Seoul National University.
The nuclear program has become a source of national pride in North Korea. Even some people who have escaped from the country talk proudly about how the North has been able to master technology that South Korea has not.
So the fact that the regime has stopped hammering away with this message is significant, Ward said. “I think North Korea is on a serious drive for peace right now,” he said.
On April 15, 2017, the birthday of “eternal president” Kim Il Sung — the current leader’s grandfather — North Korea staged a huge military parade where it showed off a jaw-dropping number of missiles, including the ones that it fired a few months later that can reach the United States. It also released statements condemning Washington’s “frantic nuclear war provocation moves” against it, warning it was ready to retaliate with “an annihilating blow.”
This year: nothing. No military parade and no mention of the United States in the official reports surrounding the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.
Last year, during joint U.S.-South Korean military drills in the spring, North Korea blasted the two as “warmongers” and accused the United States of being “an arch criminal escalating the tension of the peninsula.”
This year: not a peep. Just a vague reference to political forces trying to stop the diplomatic process.
There also has been a very notable drop — to almost nothing — in anti-U.S. rhetoric in the state media over the past month. That is conspicuous for a regime founded entirely in opposition to the United States.
Given its penchant for belligerence and flowery language, it is easy to dismiss North Korea’s media reports as incendiary exaggeration. But close readers of KCNA such as Robert Carlin, a former intelligence analyst focusing on North Korea, point out that Pyongyang often gives plenty of signals about its intentions through its state media.
Take, for example, its announcement in January last year that it was in the “final stages” of completing its intercontinental ballistic missile program. Seven months later, the country fired one.
“Now that he is turning toward engagement, Kim [Jong Un] does not feel the need to go out of his way to provoke others,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea leadership expert at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“The Rodong Sinmun used to run strong condemnation of U.S. military drills in South Korea, but not this year. Kim recently said he understands the joint military drills, and he’s sticking to his words,” Koh said.
Another point of comparison comes with the U.S.-led strikes on Syria.
Last year, within 24 hours of Trump ordering a missile strike in Syria after a chemical weapons attack there, KCNA came out with a harshly worded statement calling the action “unpardonable.”
It was another “bitter lesson” that the only way to counter “imperialist aggression” is through strength, the North Korean state media outlet said, referring to the “treasured sword” of its nuclear program.
The regimes in North Korea and Syria have been strong supporters of each other, sending missives back and forth through their state media outlets and — according to United Nations reports — helping each other militarily.
This year, however, after the Trump administration ordered a missile strike in Syria following another suspected chemical weapons attack, there was no such diatribe against the U.S. “imperialists.”
Instead, North Korea sent a tepid message of support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a recent Syrian anniversary and dispatched some decidedly mid-level officials to the Syrian Embassy this month, a notable downgrade from the North Korean power players sent last year.
A change of tone also has been discernible in how North Korea has been talking about South Korea.
Pyongyang’s news outlets have avoided criticizing Moon, a progressive who favors engagement with the North, since his election almost a year ago.
But in recent months, since Moon hosted Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, during the Olympics, North Korean state media have been featuring photos of the leaders of the estranged states smiling and getting along.
“The domestic messaging looks like they’re preparing the North Koreans for getting along with the ‘enemy,’ ” said John Delury, an international relations professor at Yonsei University and a proponent of engagement.
The Rodong Sinmun ran color photos of Moon hosting Kim Yo Jong and North Korea’s titular head of state, Kim Yong Nam, at the presidential Blue House in Seoul during their visit.
Then this month, the Rodong Sinmun carried photos on its front page of Kim surrounded by South Korean pop stars — people whose music is banned in the totalitarian state. There he was, standing in the middle of female singers known for their skimpy outfits and songs such as “Red Flavor”: “We’re sunburned from falling in love. We are red, red, ah.”
That image struck Delury.
“For me, Kim Jong Un totally gratuitously taking a photo with the K-pop stars and putting it on Page 1 of the Rodong Sinmun was significant,” he said, adding that North Korea was sending a message that Kim is literally at the center of this engagement effort.
“This is telling the North Korean people: We’re heading into a different space here,” Delury said.
But Kim Seok-hyang, dean of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University, warned against getting too excited.
“Kim Jong Un’s rhetoric has changed, but it would be hasty to conclude that Kim himself has changed,” she said. “The recent shift in rhetoric is nothing more than a superficial change.”