The nuclear legacies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il

Image: Pyongyang Press Corps Pool

Following the third inter-Korean summit on September 19, Kim Jong Un made the following statement at the summit’s joint press conference. “We have agreed to proactively work to make the Korean Peninsula a land of peace without nuclear weapons or the threat of nuclear weapons.” On September 20, KCNA reported on the inter-Korean summit and the content of Kim Jong Un’s speech was repeated by the channel’s anchor, although the actual video of Kim Jong Un’s speech was not shown.

On the same day, the Rodong Sinmun reported on Kim Jong Un’s speech regarding North Korea’s nuclear program in an article entitled “The Dear Respected Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong Un and President Moon Jae In held a joint press conference regarding the September ‘Pyongyang Joint Declaration,’” which said: “[Kim Jong Un] emphasized the solid promise to proactively work to make the Korean Peninsula a land of peace free of nuclear weapons and nuclear threat.”

The publication also posted the full text of the September 9 Pyongyang Joint Declaration. Its fifth section read as follows: “The two sides shared the view that the Korean Peninsula must be turned into a land of peace free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threats, and that substantial progress toward this end must be made in a prompt manner.”

The fifth section of the Pyongyang Joint Declaration quoted above and the fourth clause of the second section of the April Panmunjom Declaration, which stated that “North and South [Korea] [agree to] realize a Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons through complete denuclearization,” have a clear gap [in meaning] between each other. The “complete denuclearization” stated in the Panmunjom Declaration that implicitly places precedence on [the removal of] South Korea’s US nuclear umbrella and [a focus on] nuclear electricity generation was made in a conditional sense, while the Pyongyang Joint Declaration’s “absence of nuclear weapons and the nuclear threat on the Korean Peninsula” placed the “nuclear threat,” which is synonymous with denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as a lower priority than “the absence of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.”

This can be seen as saying that North Korea must abandon its nuclear weapons first before everything else. Perhaps because of this, President Moon Jae In, during his report to the South Korean citizenry after the inter-Korean summit, said that his discussion with Kim Jong Un about denuclearization had changed greatly since last month.  

The problem rests, however, in whether Kim Jong Un’s September 19 speech was targeted at the North Korean people or not. North Korea’s Suryong system places the “teachings” of the leader above the constitution and Party-mandated laws. North Korea referred to itself as a nuclear state in the 2012 revision of its constitution, but during the Seventh Party Plenum in 2016, which saw revisions to Party-mandated laws – which have more legal authority than constitutional revisions – North Korea did not clearly state that it was a nuclear-armed state.

That being said, in his general briefing, Kim Jong Un announced that, “The great successes of the hydrogen bomb test and the Kwangmyongsong-4 launch displayed the dignity of Juche Korea and our national power at its highest point,” and that, “As a responsible nuclear-armed state, we will not, as already clearly stated, use our nuclear weapons first unless our sovereignty is violated by the nuclear weapons of invading enemy forces.”

North Korea proclaimed the revisions to the Party-mandated laws, but on April 20, 2018, it announced the weaponization of its nuclear arsenal at the Party Central Committee General Plenum. Before that, Kim Jong Un had handed down several “teachings” that mentioned North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. As mentioned above, he had already made an introductory speech at the Party Plenum in 2016 stating that North Korea is a “responsible nuclear-armed state.”

It could be said, accordingly, that the mention of a “Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons” during the third inter-Korean summit this year displayed some degree of nuance pointing to North Korea’s “abandonment of nuclear weapons,” which would then, however, be contrary to Kim Jong Un’s “teachings” in the past that North Korea is already a “nuclear-armed state.”

The issue is that in North Korea there is a higher authority that exists apart from Kim Jong Un’s teachings: Kim Il Sung’s teachings and his “legacy.” It is clear that the “legacy rule” still has a stronghold on the country. The central point of the “theory of the socio-political organism,” which sees North Korean society as a singular living organism, is that the Suryong is the control center of this organism. However, the Suryong in today’s North Korea is Kim Il Sung, not Kim Jong Un.

Many scholars have given Kim Jong Un the status of the Suryong, but North Korean official Party documents and the state-run media have continued to refrain from placing the title “Suryong” in front of Kim Jong Un’s name. Even Kim Jong Il, who was named the “Eternal Suryong” in 2012 has never been called “Suryong Kim Jong Il” by the state-run press. The state media just calls the Kims the “Great Suryongnims” or the “Previous Generation Suryongnims.” This means that North Korea’s “control centre” is still Kim Il Sung, and that the deceased leader is still ruling North Korea.

The North Korean nuclear issue is closely related to this state of affairs. Just like during the Kim Il Jung-era, the South Korean delegation that visited North Korea recently told the media that Kim Jong Un clearly showed an intention to denuclearize in accordance with the “legacy of Kim Il Sung.” While it’s important to confirm Kim Jong Un’s intention to denuclearize, I think we need to focus on whether Kim Il Sung really had any intention to denuclearize and whether he left teachings or a legacy regarding denuclearization.

On July 6, 2016, North Korea’s spokesman for the State Affairs Commission announced the following statement: “The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the legacy of the Great Suryongnim and the Obui (father-mother) General, and is the unceasing intention of the Party, military and people under the guidance of the Dear Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un.”

That being said, on January 1, 2018, Kim Jong Un stated the following during his New Year’s Address: “We have realized the wish of the great leaders who devoted their lives to building the strongest national defense capability to reliably safeguard our country’s sovereignty, and we have created a mighty sword for defending peace, as desired by all our people who had to tighten their belts for long years.” The “mighty sword for defending peace” mentioned here is a symbolic way of referring to nuclear weapons.

It is clear, when reading Kim Jong Un’s speech, that the legacies of his father and grandfather are clearly focused on North Korea’s status as a nuclear-armed state. To quote the words of a [former] North Korean nuclear scientist, Kim Il Sung said in a secret “teaching” that “Nuclear weapons are a must for the unification of the motherland.” Kim Jong Il also reportedly said that “The unification of the motherland starts with nuclear weapons and is completed with nuclear weapons.” It is clear from these statements that making North Korea a nuclear-armed state was part and parcel with Kim Il Sung’s teachings and legacy.

Considering that Kim Jong Un cannot override the authority of Kim Il Sung in his current status, and looking again at his speech following the September 19 summit, it appears that the real focus of his words are on “the absence of a nuclear threat” rather than a “Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons.”