North Korea is very hushed about the prospect of denuclearisation — and it could be playing the US

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Photo: Ed Jones/ AFP/ Getty Images.
  • South Korea says North Korea has made huge concessions in nuclear negotiations and is willing to talk to the US about disarming, but North Korean media mentions no such thing.
  • This points to a few possible strategies North Korea may be playing out, and they range from innocent to sinister.
  • The US responded to North Korea’s apparent talk of disarmament with cautious optimism but stressed that use of military action to force Pyongyang to denuclearize was still on the table.

North Korean media has been very hushed about historic talks this week between South Korean officials and Kim Jong Un, which ended Tuesday with representatives from Seoul announcing that Kim had made massive nuclear concessions.

The front page of North Korea’s most widely read domestic newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, on Wednesday made no mention of Kim’s reported wish to denuclearize. On page six, the paper talks about North Korea as a “responsible nuclear power … preserv(ing) the values of parallel development of economy and nuclear weaponry,”according to the North Korea-focused news site NK News.

The talk of growing the country’s economy and nuclear program at the same time echoes one of Kim’s consistent messages, and certainly doesn’t acknowledge the massive about-face the South Koreans said he made during the talks.

In another North Korean publication, meant more for international consumption, Pyongyang bashed the US in its typical way, saying the US was “openly pushing ahead with its preparations for igniting a war of aggression in an attempt to reverse the atmosphere of detente on the Korean Peninsula,” according to The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng.

The incongruity between South Korea’s public statements and North Korea’s media, which continues to discuss nuclear development and the US as an instigator of war, points to a few possible motivations driving Pyongyang.

Possible motives

The most innocent explanation would be that North Korea does not yet want to publicize its concessions and is awaiting a US response before talking openly of them to avoid embarrassment if the US were to reject the concessions.

Another possibility, according to Yun Sun, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center, is that South Korea oversold North Korea’s promises. “South Korea has an innate interest to provide the most benevolent interpretation of what North Korea said,” Sun told Business Insider on Tuesday.

The US has met reports of North Korean outreach with scepticism but cautious optimism, with President Donald Trump hailing “possible progress” in the negotiations and Vice President Mike Pence reemphasizing that the US may still use military force to sort out the conflict with Pyongyang. The theory goes that North Korea may simply be trying to buy time to perfect its weapons programs or earn some sanctions relief by paying lip service to peace talks.

Another, more sinister motivation for Pyongyang could be driving a wedge between the US and its ally South Korea by exposing differences between the two countries’ North Korea policies.

In South Korea, the government has sought more engagement with the North and is exposed to the brunt of Pyongyang’s military force if war breaks out, whereas the US has expressed a resolve to let North Korea wither under sanctions or go to war if necessary.