The North Korean leader on Tuesday reiterated his determination to achieve complete denuclearization and also called for economic development in his annual New Year’s address, stressing the need to strengthen the North’s defense.
In the address, Kim Jong-un highlighted last year’s developments in inter-Korean and US-North Korea relations, while calling on his country to seek economic development and modernize its defense industry.
Kim delivered the address while sitting on a sofa in an office with portraits of his father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather Kim Il-sung in the background. His previous New Year’s addresses had taken place in more formal settings, with Kim standing at a podium.
While Kim’s address included conditions for further talks with the US, Seoul welcomed the speech as a sign of the North Korean leader’s willingness to improve inter-Korean relations and achieve denuclearization.
Regarding relations with the US, Kim said he was ready to meet with US President Donald Trump again at any time, but warned he would “find a new path” if the US were to test North Koreans’ patience with sanctions and pressure.
“I am ready to sit face to face with the US president again at any time going forward, and will make efforts to produce an outcome the international community would welcome,” he said in an apparent response to a series of conciliatory gestures from the US. Trump has said he would like to hold a summit with Kim in January or February.
|Kim Jong-un. Korean Central Television|
Kim also reiterated his “strong will” and the North Korean government’s “unchanged” position to pursue better relations with the US and to seek complete denuclearization.
But Kim called on Washington to take “corresponding” and “trustworthy” measures to reciprocate steps North Korea has already taken. Over the past year, the North destroyed a nuclear testing site in Punggye-ri in the presence of international reporters, returned the remains of US soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War and released detained US citizens.
“If the US fails to keep its promise to the world and misjudge our patience by unilaterally forcing its ways on us and sticks to sanctions and pressure against the republic (North Korea), we cannot help but find a new path to protect the country’s sovereignty and best interests, and achieve peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
Although he warned he could explore a “new path,” Kim’s restrained tone indicates his willingness to maintain the momentum for dialogue with the US, experts say.
“I think it is a message to Trump that he is willing to give up his nuclear weapons program as he promised at the Singapore summit and hold another summit with Trump to break the impasse in the denuclearization talks,” said Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University.
Since the Singapore summit where Kim committed to working toward denuclearization, talks between the US and North Korea have stalled due to their differences over the sequencing of denuclearization.
North Korea has not responded to Washington’s calls for senior working-level talks to follow up on the June 12 summit, apparently preferring to engage Trump rather than other US officials in its negotiations.
Kim said that the North declared it would not “produce” nuclear weapons, a statement that stands in sharp contrast to his New Year’s speech last year, when he ordered the mass production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, Park noted, adding that this might signal the North’s willingness to put a temporary cap on warhead production.
For US officials expecting major concessions from Pyongyang, however, the speech may have been disappointing, according to Ko Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
“As the speech did not include any new, dramatic suggestion from North Korea, I think there is now a higher possibility of the second North Korea-US summit being delayed,” he said. “A deadlock in US-North Korea talks is likely to continue for now.”
Peace and money
Regarding inter-Korean relations, Kim stressed that North Korea was strongly invested in bringing peace and stability to the Korean Peninsula.
He called last year “a year of stirring events that witnessed a dramatic change unprecedented in the history of national division spanning more than seven decades.”
He called for the two Koreas to take more practical steps to establish peace after formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War by closely discussing the matter with the relevant parties. North Korea seemingly seeks to include China, one of its closest allies, in the talks for more leverage, experts have noted.
“It means North Korea wants to pursue a ‘two plus two’ negotiations on establishing a peace regime, with China on its side,” a report released by the Institute for National Security Strategy on Tuesday said.
There is an underlying intention to strengthen ties with China in line with Beijing’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of communist China’s founding, coupled with 70 years of the two nations’ diplomatic ties, the think tank affiliated with the South’s National Intelligence Service said.
On the matter of inter-Korean economic cooperation, Kim mentioned two sensitive projects, both of which are now suspended and whose resumption would most likely violate the international sanctions that remain in place.
“We are willing to resume the Kaesong industrial complex and tour program to Kumgangsan without any preconditions or price, in consideration of South Korean businessmen who once worked at the complex and their difficult situation, along with the hopes of our South Korean comrades who seek to visit our people’s famous mountain,” Kim said in his speech.
He added that if the two Koreas join forces, no sanctions or pressure from external forces would be able to stop their efforts to “open a new road of prosperity for the people.”
According to Kim Dong-yub, this is not only a message to South Korea, asking it to determine its North Korea policy independently without the involvement of the US, but also an indirect appeal to Washington for an alleviation of the sanctions.
But with Kim highlighting the need to turn further attention to economic prosperity in his speech, North Korea is also likely to continue to bring up such economic projects as a main agenda -- even more than it did last year.
“It means the two projects will be key agenda items concerning inter-Korean relations this year,” the INSS report said.
“North Korea is prepared to strike a move, so it is requesting South Korea to actively convince the United Nations and the US to alleviate or lift sanctions layered upon the state.”
The Seoul government shut down the joint industrial complex at the North’s border town of Kaesong in 2016 in retaliation for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile provocations at the time. There were suspicions that the revenue generated from the complex were funding the North’s nuclear program.
The Mount Kumgang tours were suspended after South Korean tourist Park Wang-ja was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in July 2008. The program was considered an important source of foreign currency for the North.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org), Jung Min-kyung (email@example.com) and Choi He-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org)