For most North Koreans, who rely on the official media for virtually all of their news, there has been no explicit explanation of why the director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, was recently in their capital. He was there to work out the details of a summit with President Donald Trump — a summit which also remains a secret to the North Korean public.

Such caution isn’t unusual for Pyongyang, but it is telling.

Kim needs to build his sanctions-hobbled economy and his single-minded pursuit of a viable nuclear program has cost him dearly. But switching the focus back to the economy — and the potential compromises required to get those sanctions lifted — presents a big risk.

Whatever course he chooses, he can’t be seen to even hint at the failure of his father’s and grandfather’s signature policies — “military first” and “self-reliance.” That would show weakness and invite challenges to his own power. He certainly can’t acknowledge the failure of his own policy — the simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and the national economy.

So he is doing the exact opposite: calling his policy a total, miraculous success.

Before meeting Moon, Kim declared to a gathering of his top party officials that the country’s missiles and nuclear weapons have advanced to the point that he no longer needs to test them. That declaration was framed outside of North Korea as simply an announcement of a moratorium on launches and underground tests aimed at creating a better atmosphere for talks.

Nowhere, however, was there any hint that Kim was considering giving his nuclear weapons up. Or of not producing more.

“The new strategic line set forth by the Workers Party of Korea is another powerful treasured sword and a bright blueprint for opening up a higher historic phase of the revolution and accelerating its advance,” said one of many recent commentaries hailing the declaration by the North’s KCNA news agency.

It added that North Korea “has definitely entered the straight path for final victory at last.”

For sure, the North has toned down its vitriol significantly.

The barrage of insults directed at Trump that got so heated around this time a year ago has subsided. Mentions of how the North’s nuclear weapons are entirely justified and non-negotiable as long as North Korea faces Washington’s “nuclear blackmail” have vanished for the time being.

But from Pyongyang’s perspective, any serious attempt at denuclearization will require assurances that the United States would not use its nuclear weapons against the North to defend its allies in South Korea. Kim has kept his position vague enough to accommodate significant shifts toward real denuclearization talks in the future, or shifts in the opposite direction. When need be, Pyongyang has shown great skill in re-interpreting its previous statements to better fit its current objectives.

What will Kim do if push comes to shove?

Determining that may need to wait until he meets with Trump, possibly in late May or early June.


Talmadge is the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @EricTalmadge.