Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Kim says North Korea could take 'new path' if U.S. maintains sanctions

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

In a seemingly Oval Office-esque setting, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday delivered a much-anticipated annual New Year’s speech, saying his country remained firmly committed to denuclearization and that he was ready to meet again with U.S. President Donald Trump at any time, while also warning that he would seek a new path if the U.S. misjudges his patience and refuses to ease crippling sanctions.

In his speech, broadcast early Tuesday on state-run television, Kim urged the United States to take reciprocal measures in exchange for denuclearization steps the North Korean dictator has claimed his country has taken since last year.

“If the United States does not keep the promise it made in the eyes of the world, and out of miscalculation of our people’s patience, it attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state,” Kim said.

The North Korean leader said he was willing to meet Trump again at any time to produce results “welcomed by the international community.”

This year’s speech drew intense attention, coming as U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks remain at an impasse months after a landmark June summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore. That summit resulted in a vaguely worded pledge “to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Dressed in a Western style suit, Kim spoke from a dark leather armchair in an office lined with packed bookshelves and paintings of his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung — a setting that resembled more intimate addresses from the White House by the U.S. president.

In the speech, which stood in stark contrast to last year’s address — which saw him order the mass production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles — Kim said himself for the first time that the North had already “declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them” and urged “corresponding practical actions” from Washington.

Trump responded to Kim’s appeal to meet, tweeting Tuesday that he was still planning for a summit with the North Korean leader. That meeting is expected to take place sometime early this year.

“I also look forward to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

The U.S. president made the comment after citing news coverage of Kim’s remarks that the North had declared it would neither make, test or proliferate nuclear weapons.

However, while Trump focused on the remarks about no longer producing, testing, using or spreading its nuclear arsenal, experts noted that this had been written in the past tense, according to the official English translation.

The passage “is in the past tense— it does not seem to be a new offer,” Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at MIT, wrote Tuesday on Twitter. “One can parse it, but Kim is describing what he’s already done.”

Still, in one possible indication of Kim’s shift away from nukes, he was quoted as urging North Koreans to “bring about a revolutionary upsurge on all fronts of socialist construction by regarding self-reliance as a treasured sword for prosperity.” The use of the “treasured sword” construction, which had previously been associated mainly with the country’s nuclear weapons program, could be seen as a sign of the seriousness of Kim’s claimed shift in focus from nukes to the North’s economy.

Kim devoted a large chunk of his speech to reiterating this focus on rebuilding his country’s tattered economy, calling for increasing electricity generation — including via the use of nuclear energy — and other development projects.

In the 30-minute speech, Kim spent more than 20 minutes highlighting his campaign to create a “self-reliant” economy despite a “harsh economic blockade.”

The North Korean leader also vowed to uphold last year’s agreements with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, playing up improving relations between the two Koreas. He said he was willing to resume joint projects with the South, including reopening the Kaesong industrial park and Mount Kumgang resort, without conditions.

That could suggest Kim wants the resumption of the two projects as sanctions relief from the U.S. Neither of those would be possible for South Korea unless sanctions are removed.

Pyongyang has demanded Washington lift sanctions and declare an official end to the 1950-53 Korean War in response to its unilateral steps toward denuclearization — including a moratorium on atomic tests, longer-range missile launches and closure of key sites.

Although the North did not conduct nuclear or missile tests last year, satellite images and leaked information from intelligence officials have pointed to ongoing activity at facilities in the secretive country.

Observers say the North’s steps have not been confirmed and can be easily reversed. U.S. officials have repeatedly called for the stringent enforcement of sanctions on the country until its “final, fully verified denuclearization.”

In a jab at the South’s alliance with the U.S., Kim also said Washington should continue to halt its joint military exercises with Seoul and not deploy strategic military assets to the South.

Washington halted some large-scale military exercises with Seoul to aid nuclear negotiations, but smaller drills have still been held.

“Given that north and south committed themselves to advancing along the road of peace and prosperity, we maintain that the joint military exercises with foreign forces, which constitute the source of aggravating the situation on the Korean peninsula, should no longer be permitted and the introduction of war equipment including strategic assets from outside should completely be suspended,” Kim said.

Despite this appeal, Kim, in a somewhat contradictory and little-noticed section of his speech, also touted the importance of his country’s own military.

“Powerful self-defense capacity is a cornerstone of the existence of a state and a guarantee for safeguarding peace,” he said.

“The munitions industry should, on the one hand, steadily raise the national defense capacity to that of the world’s advanced countries by stepping up the effort for making the defense industry Juche-based and modern, therefore guaranteeing the peace on the Korean peninsula by force of arms, and, on the other, should actively support economic construction,” he added.

Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues, said that despite the relatively positive tone, there was little new to emerge from the address.

“Kim Jong Un simply reaffirmed what we already know: that North Korea considers progress on denuclearization conditional on Washington providing sanctions relief,” said Oba.

“Expanding what he says he’s willing to do while insisting on unspecified reciprocal U.S. concessions to put those actions into effect puts greater pressure on Washington,” Oba said. “So, Kim is not so much making any new commitments so much as laying the groundwork for the United States to take the blame for any lack of progress.”

Kim’s speech comes after a year of unprecedented summitry — including the historic summit with Trump and three meetings with Moon and two with Chinese President Xi Jinping — and provided a rare glimpse into the general direction of the reclusive country’s policies in the months to come.

As for Japan, it remains unclear if Kim is truly open to a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, though he hinted last year at the possibility “at an appropriate time,” according to South Korea’s Moon.

Abe, for his part, has said he is willing to meet Kim, though he has insisted that any summit must lead to a resolution of the regime’s abductions of Japanese citizens.
State-run media, however, poured cold water on the possibility of such a meeting anytime soon, with KCNA saying in a commentary Monday that Japan “remains unchanged in its policy of confrontation” with the North and is “bat-blind” in terms of its political awareness.

“Japan, a political dwarf which has come under bitter denunciation and rejection by the international community for its bad habit of seeking benefits in the troubled waters, dares to challenge the strong trend of peace and stability in the region. This is, indeed, ridiculous,” the commentary said.

David Maxwell, a North Korea expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, called the speech and setting “a brilliantly crafted performance.”

“My sense is that Kim wants to portray himself as a legitimate leader in the international community both superior to Moon Jae-in and an equal to Donald Trump,” Maxwell wrote. “Delivering the speech from his well-appointed study with the accompanying background videos highlighting economic development was well thought out and makes Kim appear normal, rational, and someone whom the international community can embrace and with whom it can negotiate.

“In sum he wants to portray himself as a real player on the international scene,” he added.