The Threat to Kim Jong Un Within North Korea

Generations of North Korean leaders have billed the nuclear program as the key to their country’s security and prosperity. You can’t contemplate giving that up without alienating a whole lot of people.

Reuters / KCNA

We often hear that Kim Jong Un is unlikely to give up his nuclear weapons because he fears that could expose him to external attack—the way, say, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was toppled by a U.S.-led military intervention only years after shipping away his nuclear program. But now there’s a reminder of the substantial internal obstacles to North Korean denuclearization.

Ahead of nuclear talks with Donald Trump in Singapore, Kim has reportedly replaced his three top military officials with younger figures who appear to be more open-minded about inter-Korean relations and the nation’s nuclear-weapons development, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, which attributed news of the shakeup to an anonymous “intelligence source.” The officers “are known for their unquestioning support” of Kim and “are flexible enough to accept the massive changes that may come from any deal with” Trump, Reuters reported on Monday, citing an unnamed “senior U.S. official” and several South Korean experts on North Korea. “U.S. officials believe there was some dissent in the military about Kim’s negotiations with South Korea and the United States, a complete reversal of the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and historic hostility,” Reuters noted, adding that Kim might even be trying to staff the upper ranks of the military with loyalists to make sure there’s no coup attempt next week while the long-reclusive leader is 3,000 miles away with Trump in Singapore.

North Korea hasn’t confirmed all the personnel changes, though its state media did report one of the replacements last month. But if the moves have indeed taken place, they highlight a major challenge for Kim if he’s serious about making concessions on his nuclear arsenal: How do you pivot away from an arduous decades-old program, which you and your father and grandfather have lauded as the centerpiece of your country’s security and prosperity, without alienating a whole lot of people? As the Korea expert Van Jackson recently wrote, “North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has birthed a large bureaucratic and elite constituency in Pyongyang—an entire nuclear ‘industry’ of scientists, engineers and warfighters, and a corresponding maintenance and supply chain. The resource and human capital commitment to North Korea’s nuclear weapons enterprise means denuclearization could generate internal enemies, especially if declared by an unproven leader,” even one who has proven ruthless in purging high-ranking rivals since coming to power in 2011.

Shin Beomchul, an expert on North Korea’s military who previously worked at South Korea’s defense and foreign affairs ministries, told me recently in Seoul that while some estimate that the North has spent $1 billion or more on its nuclear program and that 10,000 people are working on it in various capacities, these numbers are notoriously difficult to verify. He said it might be reasonable to assume that the Kim government would need to “demobilize 2,000 people during the denuclearization process.” But he added that these people could potentially be reassigned to other glamorous government projects without major disruption, and others agree. A team of Stanford researchers recently released a 10-year roadmap for denuclearizing North Korea in which the country’s nuclear scientists, engineers, and technicians are first tasked with halting nuclear operations, then rolling them back, and then working on civilian nuclear programs.

Growing up in North Korea, the North Korean defector Ken Eom was told by the government that nuclear weapons were essential to “protect our land” from U.S. attack. The government also said they were needed to “develop the economy,” since powerful countries such as the United States and Russia wouldn’t be able to “ignore” a nuclear-armed North Korea and would be compelled to offer the North economic and diplomatic concessions. Many North Koreans “believe” these arguments, said Eom, who escaped from North Korea in 2010, shortly before Kim Jong Un came to power. But “nowadays it’s a difficult situation for the [Kim] regime because many people are [losing faith in] the North Korean promise” since the economy isn’t growing in sync with the country’s nuclear arsenal. Some elites think the purpose of nuclear weapons is to protect their personal position and the Kim regime, Eom told me in Seoul, though they tend to be more afraid of Kim Jong Un than the United States.

Whereas his father, Kim Jong Il, pursued a “military-first” policy, Kim Jong Un has focused his military buildup on nuclear weapons and redirected significant resources and attention from the military to developing the economy in tandem with—and possibly, ultimately at the expense of—his nuclear arsenal, said John Delury, a Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. “We’re at a major transition,” Delury told me.