Weeks of speculation on North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un’s health ended Friday with his visit to the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory in Pyongyang, as Bloomberg reported. Kim’s visit commemorated the opening of the plant, but analysts believe he chose the occasion to send a message about his state’s nuclear program.

Kim’s Back

Kim’s absence from the public eye sent experts into a frenzy when he failed to celebrate the Day of the Sun, the birthday of his grandfather and founder of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung. Immediately following it, rumors circulated that he received heart surgery, that doctors were flown in from China, and that something went wrong during the operation.

Kim is alive and well, however, but why he chose to disengage from public life can be answered only by Kim himself. With his whereabouts and health no longer unknown, the focus on North Korea can return back to its nuclear capabilities, which is precisely why Kim visited a fertilizer factory on Friday.

Fertilizer and … Nukes?

Analysts believe the factory can serve a dual purpose: provide fertilizer and play a role in the state’s nuclear production.

“The DPRK does need fertilizer, and the information on how to extract uranium in the midst of that process is readily available,” wrote Margaret Croy, a research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, in a report published in April.

Kim’s state has a high rate of poverty so increasing agricultural production is an obvious desire. However, if Pyongyang uses the plant to also create yellowcake uranium, it can conceal its nuclear buildup under the guise of agricultural production. Although the factory could be used for nefarious purposes, yellowcake uranium would be a downgrade from the typical material North Korea has already produced.

“Theoretically, the fertilizer factory can be used to produce yellowcake, but why would the North do that when it already can produce something more advanced than that?” asked Cho Han-bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

Kim’s ribbon-cutting ceremony at the factory was his second trip this year, Bloomberg reported. Two other regime officials also inspected the construction periodically since 2017. State-owned Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as praising the “self-reliance” of his nation and he said his father and grandfather would be “greatly pleased.”

Tensions With South Korea

On Sunday, shots were exchanged across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Seoul reported gunfire received from the North, which hit a guard post in Cheorwon, South Korea. It returned fire and reported no injuries, BBC reported.

The incident marked the first time since 2017 that gunfire has crossed the border. The previous incident occurred when Pyongyang troops fired upon a defecting North Korean soldier who was crossing the border. South Korean military officials said there was a “low possibility” the recent incident intentional, but so far, there has been no official statement from Pyongyang. 

Nuclear Ambitions

Kim is a young leader by North Korean standards. His father took over at the age of 53 and ruled for 17 years. Before him, Kim’s grandfather founded the state at age 36 and stayed in office until his death 46 years later. Kim took the reins at age 27 to 29 (birth records differ on his age) and has only been in power for 8 years.

Whereas his predecessors are mostly known for isolating Pyongyang from the rest of the world, Kim has pursued a forked strategy of both reopening relations and developing nuclear capabilities to deter adversaries. While those may seem counterproductive to one another, nuclear power has often been used to legitimize a state. Already, North Korea has used the threat of nuclear ambitions to force its way to the negotiating table several times in recent decades.

Kim’s father signed the Agreed Framework with former US President Bill Clinton in 1994. The deal was more of a legacy of Kim Il-Sung who had passed away earlier in the year. Ultimately, North Korea decided to pursue nuclear weapons anyway and former American President George W. Bush was eager to classify North Korea as part of an “axis of evil.” So the entire deal lasted 7 seven years.

Kim’s desire to push for nuclear is to fulfill the legacy of his ancestors. His father tested Pyongyang’s first nuclear weapons, ushering the state to a new level of global power, even if its nuclear ultilization was primitive.

Power Shift

Since Kim camel to power in 2011, the global order been characterized by chaos, much like during the time of Kim Il-Sung when the Soviet Union collapsed. At that point, Pyongyang realized its could no longer rely on outside forces to prop it up and it began to pursue nuclear in earnest.

Whereas the US used to be seen as the de facto leader of the world and No. 1 super power, President Donald Trump has done much to upend that dominance. Consequently, the uncertainty of power at the global stage may have caused Kim to rededicate his nation to living up to its nuclear ideals. 

At the same time, Kim made overtures to Trump, engaging him on numerous occasions and even meeting him in-person. Kim also ventured outside North Korea, something North Korean leaders rarely do. In less than a year, he went on nine excursions to foreign nations and even engaged Western reporters, the National Post reported.

Taking North Korea Seriously

Ultimately, the Kim dynasty is hallmarked by creating a nuclear state on the Korean Peninsula. Now, he has established the nuclear program to the point that the US — and the rest of the world — must take it seriously. In March, missile testing resumed with four successful launches. 

“North Korea continues its illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities in direct violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions,” an April 7 US Department of Defense report read. “It has conducted increasingly sophisticated nuclear and ICBM flight tests, which pose a threat to the U.S. homeland and our allies.”

Kim’s nuclear progress has brought it into good graces with both China and Russia. Both states routinely take a softer stance when it comes to sanctions, attempting to have them lightened. Suddenly, North Korea has relationships that approach the level of ally. 

The Kim dynasty will be solidified under Kim Jong Un and work to bring North Korea’s nuclear dreams to fruition. Kim has demonstrated the desire for peaceful negotiation, however, so the power will likely be used to that end — as a massive bargaining chip.

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