The DPRK Constitution and Nuclear Weapons

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Jaesung Ryu (East Asia Institute)



Just as the talk about talks was heating up again, the North Koreans appear to have upped the ante by enshrining the country’s status as a nuclear power in a new constitution. At least, that is what everyone from CNN to the DailyNK seems to think.

Even the Chinese foreign ministry got into the act. According to Yonhap, the question was asked by a reporter from the Global Times during a regular press conference by Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin on June 1 (Chinese here, English here shortly).

“Q: North Korea recently passed a constitutional amendment, indicating the DPRK possesses nuclear weapons. What is your comment?

A: The denuclearization of the peninsula and safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula is in line with the common interests of all parties and requires joint effort.”

Global Times, hardly a voice of moderation on foreign policy issues, weighed in with a pointed editorial titled “China Must Not Let North Korea Go Nuclear.” The piece notes that China must not side with the US and Seoul, but nonetheless stick to its principles in its relationship with the DPRK:

“Washington and Seoul have dismissed the claim, saying that they would not recognize North Korea as a nuclear power. China should not join the two and help them exert pressure on North Korea. However, it is also necessary for China to criticize North Korea's latest move and oppose its intention to legalize its nuclear status.”

So is this really a constitutional commitment to nuclear weapons? We are skeptical. The lightly-amended Constitution, modified during last month’s Supreme People’s Assembly meeting, had the primary purpose of inscribing Kim Jong Il’s eternal status and making titular adjustments to accommodate the new offices bestowed on Kim Jong Un. For example, while the old constitution was known as the Kim Il Sung constitution, the new one is now the Kim Il Sung Kim Jong Il constitution.

The passage in question is from the Preamble and reads roughly as follows:

"Comrade Kim Jong Il, in the midst of the breakdown of the international socialist system and the vicious anti-DPRK attacks by the imperialist coalition, gloriously defended comrade Kim Il Sung's precious achievements of socialism and transformed our nation into a state of strong political ideology, a nuclear power [literally a state with nuclear capability], and an invincible military power as well as opening the shining great passage [towards] the construction of a thriving [kang song guk ga, not “strong and prosperous”] nation."

("김정일동지께서는 세계사회주의체계의 붕괴와 제국주의련합세력의 악랄한 반공화국압살공세속에서 선군정치로 김일성동지의 고귀한 유산인 사회주의전취물을 영예롭게 수호하시고 우리 조국을 불패의 정치사상강국, 핵보유국, 무적의 군사강국으로 전변시키시였으며 강성국가건설의 휘황한 대통로를 열어놓으시였다.")

The preamble is as much about Kim Jong Il’s achievements as it is the nuclear question per se. The nuclear issue does not come up anywhere else in the document.

Nonetheless, this looks like a classic commitment technology to us: the regime raises the bribe price of negotiating over the nuclear program by writing it into a constitution with both Dear and Great Leaders’ names on it. Clever and certainly in line with current policy.

But we should not get agitated about it, as Chung Mong-joon is wont to do; the Saenuri Assemblyman has now gone beyond his previous statements on the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons—which some House Republicans have also advocated--to argue for an independent nuclear path. Hankyoreh offers up by far the most balanced South Korean coverage, although they too buy into the line that this is a “declaration” of nuclear status.

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