Asia Pacific

North Korea's Kim calls for 'diplomatic and military countermeasures' as year-end deadline looms

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for “diplomatic and military countermeasures” for preserving the country’s sovereignty and security ahead of Pyongyang’s self-imposed year-end deadline for U.S. concessions in nuclear talks, state-run media reported Tuesday.

Kim issued the calls during a seven-hour “comprehensive report” on the third day of a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

The meeting came amid rising tensions and ahead of the looming year-end deadline set by Kim for the United States to lift crushing sanctions or make other concessions in the deadlocked denuclearization negotiations — or risk Pyongyang taking an unspecified “new path.”

Kim urged party members to prepare “positive and offensive political, diplomatic and military countermeasures for firmly preserving the sovereignty and security of the country, intensifying the combat against anti-socialist and non-socialist acts,” KCNA reported.

Kim called for the party’s stepped-up efforts to bolster its leadership ability and turn itself into a “militant party full of vitality and vigor,” while emphasizing that the party has determined it faces “another arduous and protracted struggle,” an apparent reference to the challenges presented by U.S.-led sanctions and other measures against the country.

The report said the meeting was continuing, suggesting Kim would reveal key details — and possibly a shift in Pyongyang’s stance in the nuclear talks — in his annual New Year’s address.

It is unusual for the North to hold multiple-day party meetings such as this one, observers say. The powerful Central Committee, however, is a rubber-stamp body, as all policy decisions are approved by Kim, who wields absolute power.

KCNA reported earlier in December that the plenary session would be held “in order to discuss and decide on crucial issues … and the changed situation at home and abroad.”

Analysts said the statement could signal the North may scrap its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Earlier this month, a senior North Korean official threatened to deliver a “Christmas gift” to the United States, a remark that stirred concern that Pyongyang was planning to escalate its confrontation with Washington. Some analysts believe this escalation could come in the form of a satellite launch or test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, possibly over Japan.

Kim’s televised New Year’s address to the North Korean people will be a chance for him to signal whether he intends to improve ties with the U.S. or escalate tensions.

On the second day of the ruling party’s key meeting, Kim focused on repairing his country’s tattered economy, but also pushed for “positive and offensive measures for fully ensuring the sovereignty and security of the country as required by the present situation,” KCNA reported Monday, without elaborating.

North Korea announced earlier in December that it had conducted “another crucial test” at its Sohae long-range rocket site — the second test at the site during the course of a week — claiming the move would bolster its “reliable strategic nuclear deterrent.”

Kim warned in April that Pyongyang could take a “new path” if Washington does not respond sufficiently to its entreaties by the end of the year. Top U.S. officials, however, brushed off the North’s deadline as “artificial.”

It’s unclear how Trump would react to a return to ICBM launches.

The U.S. president has effectively ignored a spate of short-range weapons tests by the North that have stoked concern in allied South Korea and Japan.

But any test of a long-range missile, one that experts say is capable of striking the continental United States, could plunge U.S.-North Korea ties back to where they were in 2017, when tensions surged and analysts fretted over the possibility of military conflict. It would also undermine what Trump considers to be one of his key foreign policy achievements as he faces impeachment proceedings and as his re-election campaign heats up.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview Monday that Washington is watching “closely” for any developments.

“We’re watching what they’re doing here in the closing days of this year, and we hope that they’ll make a decision that will lead to a path of peace and not one towards confrontation,” he said.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the plenary meeting “is meant to legitimize the process behind the policy decisions” Kim will announce in his New Year speech. “This is political theater for both domestic and international consumption,” Easley said. “Kim wants to appear strategic rather than tactical, proactive rather than reactive, and calculating rather than capricious.”

The plenary meeting, he said, is not when we learn specifics.

“This meeting is to provide political justification for the economic and security policies Pyongyang will pursue in 2020,” Easley added.

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