North Korean leader Kim Jong-un expressed his hopes of a second summit with the US in his New Year’s speech, but did not offer additional steps toward denuclearization.
Instead, he repeated the North’s existing position -- that the US must ease its sanctions against the communist state.
Few would criticize the South Korean government if it tried to mediate in the summitry, but it should avoid doing so as a means to rush inter-Korean projects among other things.
Kim’s address invites concerns that he may have effectively declared that his country is an undisputed nuclear power and will act as such. Kim said North Korea would not make or use atomic weapons anymore. This sounds as if the North intends to hold onto the nuclear weapons it has built thus far. One cannot but wonder if what Kim means by “denuclearization” is merely a freeze on nuclear weapons.
Moreover, the claim that the North isn’t making nuclear weapons anymore is questionable. The US network NBC recently quoted experts as saying that North Korea could have up to 100 nuclear warheads by 2020, despite stopping its nuclear and missile tests, and that Kim has moved from research and development to mass production.
As the North demands that the US take corresponding measures to reward the steps it has taken, Kim warned that he could be forced to take a “new path” if the US persists with sanctions against his regime. The reference to a new path seems to mean the North might reinforce its nuclear capabilities unless the US lifts sanctions.
Kim said he was ready to hold a summit with the US. This appears to be a positive reply to US President Donald Trump’s tweet, last week, in which he said he was looking forward to his next summit with the North Korean leader.
However, Kim’s failure to mention any new denuclearization steps sent the message that the measures Pyongyang has already taken so far -- such as a proposal to dismantle nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and shut down the Tongchang-ri missile engine site -- are all it can offer at the current stage. The North has sent a hard-to-return ball into the US court. It is unlikely that the US will ease its sanctions against the North when Kim proposes no additional steps to dismantle its nuclear program.
The important thing is not the scene of Trump and Kim sitting across from each other at a summit, but substantial progress in denuclearizing North Korea. Any dialogue will be meaningless without progress on denuclearization.
Cool-headed judgment is needed here to see if the North wants to get the dialogue rolling with Kim’s full commitment to denuclearization or only under the pretense of removing his nukes to make the US ease sanctions.
Kim’s New Year address and North Korea’s moves so far fall short of a trustworthy commitment to complete denuclearization. There is a dominant view in the South that the North will not give up its entire nuclear arsenal easily, considering that it has withstood escalating sanctions and pressure and effectively perfected a nuclear program.
As conditions for denuclearizing the North, Kim demanded a permanent halt to US-South Korea joint military drills and the deployment here of US military’s strategic assets, as well as the conclusion of a peace treaty.
These require careful responses as they directly impact South Korea’s security. They are issues that may well be discussed when the unification of Korea as a free democracy is close at hand.
Kim also said he was willing to resume the two suspended inter-Korean projects -- an industrial complex in Kaeseong and the Kumgangsan tours -- without any preconditions.
On one hand, this reflects his wish for assistance from the South. On the other, it may be an attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US.
In seeking to improve inter-Korean relations, the government in the South must take caution. In a situation where Pyongyang has not yet taken substantial moves to denuclearize, it is risky to push inter-Korean projects too quickly. If inter-Korean projects outpace denuclearization and weaken sanctions, South Koreans may face an unwanted outcome. When it comes to security, all nations must prepare for the worst-case scenario.