North Korean news outlets fawn over Kim Jong Un but offer few clues on nuclear plan

VIDEO: REUTERS
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (right) and South Korea's President Moon Jae In walk together after announcing a joint statement near the end of their historic summit at the truce village of Panmunjom, on April 27, 2018.
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (right) and South Korea's President Moon Jae In walk together after announcing a joint statement near the end of their historic summit at the truce village of Panmunjom, on April 27, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL, South Korea (NYTIMES) – In gushing coverage, North Korea’s main newspaper devoted four of its six pages on Saturday (April 28) to the summit meeting the day before between Kim Jong Un, the North’s leader, and Moon Jae In, the South’s. It brightened its usually drab pages with 62 color photographs from the historic event.

It even printed the leaders’ joint declaration professing a goal of denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula.

But, like other state-run North Korean media, the newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, gave no hint to its readers whether Kim would genuinely consider giving up his nuclear weapons, or what he might demand in return.

Rather, it focused on Kim’s new diplomatic turn. “With his boundlessly noble love for the nation and with his sophisticated political skills, he has laid the groundwork for a turning point in North-South Korean relations,” the propaganda-filled Rodong said.

The coverage highlighted what the inter-Korean meeting glaringly lacked. However positive the goals described in the three-page agreement the leaders signed, the critical question remained: Does Kim intend to bargain away his nuclear weapons, or are his recent head-spinning diplomatic overtures aimed only at softening his image and easing sanctions against his impoverished country?

Kim will almost certainly be pressed to answer that more clearly when he meets President Donald Trump in late May or early June.

In the joint declaration – which Rodong printed at the bottom of its third page – the two sides confirmed a “common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula,” a commitment North Korea has made before and then flouted by conducting six nuclear tests.

 

The North Korean media listed denuclearisation as the last of three major agenda items from the summit meeting at the border village of Panmunjom – unlike the South Korean government, which cited it first. The North’s coverage described extensively how Kim was spearheading efforts to open “an era of national reconciliation and solidarity, and peace and prosperity” on the divided peninsula.

Still, its coverage of the summit meeting reconfirmed North Korea’s dramatic shift from raising tensions through weapons tests to creating a reconciliatory mood through high-profile meetings that would have been unthinkable just several months ago.

Sceptics say Kim’s goal remains to be accepted as a nuclear power. He is merely trying to improve ties with South Korea to steer it further from the United States and to escape sanctions that are increasingly hurting the North’s economy, they say.

But if Kim intends to win diplomatic recognition, a peace treaty and economic aid from Washington and its allies, as South Korean officials hope he does, trading away his nuclear arsenal is his only bargaining chip. He cannot reveal his hand too soon, they say.

South Korean officials say they have heard directly from Kim a willingness to denuclearise.

But Kim never uttered the word “denuclearisation” in public on Friday during the heavily choreographed events, which featured hand-holding and hugging, jokes and smiles, but produced vague pledges to seek nuclear disarmament and a peace treaty.

After signing their agreement, Kim and Moon stood before cameras, Kim’s first debut to outside media and his first internationally broadcast news conference.

Moon said he and Kim had agreed to “closely cooperate for complete denuclearisation.” But Kim said only that the two sides had agreed to “practical steps” so that all Koreans could live in “a peaceful land without war.” Kim repeatedly complained on Friday that previous deals with South Korea and the United States had all collapsed. Such an attempt to convey his wariness could mean protracted negotiations with Washington, which seeks a quick dismantlement, analysts said.

Alexander Vershbow, a former American ambassador to Seoul, expressed some caution.

“It remains to be seen what Kim Jong Un’s commitment to denuclearisation means in concrete terms: whether it foreshadows agreement to President Trump’s demand for the rapid and verifiable elimination of the North’s nuclear weapons, delivery systems and infrastructure, or whether the North envisages a drawn-out process tied to potentially unacceptable demands that the United States withdraw its forces from the South or provide immediate sanctions relief, while the North’s nuclear threat remains in place,” he said by email.

The prospects of carrying out the inter-Korean agreement – which also called for the easing of military tensions along the Korean border and large South Korean investments to improve the North’s road and train systems – will depend on whether Kim and Trump can reach a deal to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons, said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior North Korea specialist at the Sejong Institute in Seongnam, South Korea.

“The coming summit between North Korea and the United States is likely to decide the future of the Korean Peninsula,” Cheong said.