North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has doubled down on his regime persevering through tough sanctions that have choked his economy, urging his country to deal a “telling blow” to those imposing the sanctions and pitching self-reliance as an “eternal lifeline,” state-run media reported Thursday.
The remarks, which came before top officials of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea on Wednesday, were Kim’s first official comments on the North’s position since denuclearization talks with the United States broke down in Vietnam in late February, in part over Pyongyang’s demands for immediate sanctions relief.
In his remarks, Kim “underscored the need to more vigorously advance” the North’s “self-supporting national economy … under the uplifted banner of self-reliance, so as to deal a telling blow to the hostile forces who go with bloodshot eyes miscalculating that sanctions can bring the DPRK to its knees,” the official Korean Central News Agency said, using the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“Self-reliance and self-supporting national economy are the bedrock of the existence of our own style socialism … and the eternal lifeline essential to the destiny of our revolution,” Kim added.
According to the KCNA report, Kim mentioned the phrases “self-reliance,” juche in Korean, or “self-supporting” economy nearly 20 times — apparently to highlight last year’s announcement that his country no longer needed to test nuclear weapons or longer-range missiles and was shifting its primary focus to its tattered economy. Kim also used the phrase “a treasured sword of prosperity” to refer to self-reliance. Previously, that formation had only been used to describe its nuclear weapons program.
In Thursday’s report, Kim also said he had “clarified the main tenor of the recent DPRK-U.S. summit talks and the Party’s stand towards it.” He did not elaborate, but appeared to steer clear of directly criticizing U.S. President Donald Trump.
Instead, experts said Kim’s remarks were likely intended to target White House hard-liners such as national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who have both been accused by Pyongyang of being an “obstacle” to sanctions relief.
“I think this is worded to get the attention of some in the administration — like Bolton and Pompeo — who believe that ‘maximum pressure’ is the best way to keep North Korea at the bargaining table,” said David Kim, a research analyst with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. “North Korea believes Trump is the one they can talk to and they will continue to use their propaganda machine to put a wedge between Trump and his administration officials.”
The North Korean leader, he said, could also be preparing “a plan B” in case diplomacy falters.
“Kim is also signaling … to show that North Korea can find ways around sanctions and can live with them if need be,” he added. “They’re preparing for a scenario in which Trump maintains maximum pressure while they ride out the 2020 elections.”
But Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia, said Kim’s words were also aimed squarely at his people.
“This is classic rhetoric geared for a domestic audience; while the North Korean elites are undoubtedly keen for the loosening of sanctions, there’s no way they will betray this in public, so best to dig in with the tried and true rhetoric around self-reliance,” he said.
“I don’t think Washington will be fooled that North Korea is nonchalant about sanctions, particularly in light of the lobbying from Seoul and China,” two countries that have pushed hard for an easing of the measures.
The North Korean leader’s comments came a day ahead of a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, where a more detailed announcement — and possibly a policy shift — could be revealed. Shortly after the Hanoi summit, top North Korean officials warned in an apparent threat to halt talks with the U.S. that Kim may have “lost the will” to make a deal on his country’s nuclear program.
Thursday’s assembly meeting in Pyongyang was also taking place ahead of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s meeting with Trump in Washington. Moon was visiting the U.S. capital in hopes of persuading the mercurial leader to give up some ground in his negotiations with North Korea.
Moon’s meeting with Trump will be his first since the Hanoi summit. That summit, at which Washington and Pyongyang had been widely expected to reach some kind of agreement, ended in a failure to reach a deal.
Moon’s administration has urged sanctions exemptions for inter-Korean projects, including the reopening of the Kaesong industrial facility and Mount Kumgang tourism site, which he and Kim agreed to during their third summit in September last year, as part of a gradual, phased approach.
The Trump administration, however, has maintained that it will not let up on the sanctions that have crippled North Korea’s economy until it first relinquishes its nuclear weapons.
One Asia policy expert in Washington, who was briefed by a top Trump administration official and spoke to The Japan Times on condition of anonymity, said that the official had “brushed aside” the expert’s endorsement of the phased approach — as well as the Moon summit.
The expert called the dismissal “disconcerting,” especially after a top Moon administration official had separately emphasized that there was “a short window of time — two months,” within which he said movement on North Korea “will be crucial” and strongly pointed to the inter-Korean process as a way to move forward.
The expert said this time line was believed to be based on the start of the U.S. presidential debates, the first of which is scheduled for late June.
Ultimately, the warning out of Pyongyang could work both ways, but Moon — who has wagered much of his political capital on engagement with North Korea — has seen his domestic approval rating plummet over economic woes, and some experts believe this may make him more disposed to an interim deal.
“Moon seems willing to accept a sub-optimal agreement on North Korea’s nuclear inventory even if it means the DPRK’s nuclear threat to South Korea and the region is effectively locked in by generic commitments on the part of Pyongyang to disarm at an unspecified time in the future,” said O’Neil.
“Kim will be aware of the political pressure on Moon to deliver something domestically and will seek to play this hard to achieve sanctions relief,” he added.
Trump, too, may be feeling the need to reach some kind of agreement as his re-election bid gears up, especially as he appears to have weathered — at least initially — the release of a summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Russia probe.
“Now freed from much of the baggage of the Mueller investigation, Trump surely would love to change the media narrative away from troubling domestic challenges and focus the American people’s collective gaze on something much more positive, especially with the 2020 elections right around the corner,” Harry Kazianis, director of Korea studies at the Center for the National Interest think tank, and Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities, wrote Monday on the National Interest website.
“There is no bigger accomplishment that would allow Trump to claim the mantle of history—and get a shot at a real legacy—then helping end the last chapters of the Cold War.”