A key part of the Kim dynasty’s national mythology is that it is the defender of the “real” Korea against a capitalist gang led by the United States. It has used that mythology to build up the military and develop nuclear weapons — and demand great sacrifice from the North Korean people. North Koreans have endured enormous expenditures on the military, harsh living conditions, and repressive government.
If Kim Jong Un agrees to surrender his nuclear program, he would be all but admitting the United States is no longer a threat. Such an admission would undermine the regime’s legitimacy. What would be the point of further sacrifice? Like revolutionaries, the Kims have started something that can’t end without putting themselves out of a job — or worse. The Kim family and their cronies could very well find themselves — like family friend Nicolai Ceausescu of Romania — up against a firing squad.
North Korea is not — as is commonly described — irrational or even “crazy.” Pyongyang makes different choices and plays by its own set of rules. They’re difficult to understand, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an underlying logic to them.