NORTH Korean leader Kim Jong Un is known for his fiery rhetoric and brazen propaganda, both of which have become a regular feature in his annual New Year’s address to the nation.
Each January 1, the leader of the regime broadcasts a speech outlining the country’s strategy and policy for the coming year. This year, Kim sat casually in a leather armchair, flanked by towering portraits of his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather and first Supreme Leader of the DPRK, Kim Il Sung, hard at work.
His physical stance mirrored his message, taking a less combative tone to the nuclear threats of last year.
While there were no political or policy bombshells, the 31-minute speech wasn’t completely without threat; aiming his ire at the United States’ lack of concessions in negotiations.
Given Pyongyang’s flurry into international diplomacy over the last 12 months, foreign policy experts watched with interest to see what, if anything, would be new in 2019.
What’s does this mean for US relations?
While there was little deviation from known North Korea policy, Kim did include some notable points regarding US relations and the faltering negotiations.
A second summit with US President Donald Trump now looks almost certain after Kim explicitly said he was ready to meet the president at “anytime.” Analysts hope this can kickstart otherwise stalled talks between the US and the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea); a point of frustration highlighted by Kim in his speech.
Kim’s declaration that North Korea will no longer “create, test, use, or proliferate nuclear weapons” may also be a starting point for negotiations.
He has laid this out in past speeches, as pointed out by James Acton, co-director of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program, on Twitter. Kim is clearly highlighting and reiterating the steps the North Koreans have already taken. The production cap on weapons allows him to show willing, while still holding on to his nuclear arsenal.
<THREAD>Kim Jong-un first made the "offer" in his New Year's speech on April 21. (1/n) pic.twitter.com/Fcl77HiYok
— (((James Acton))) (@james_acton32) January 2, 2019
Former desk officer at the Korean State Department, Mintaro Oba, told NK News this is both a show of power – demonstrating they no longer need to build weapons – and a bid to mount pressure on the US.
“North Korea wants to put more pressure on the United States to reciprocate with sanctions relief by offering something tantalising,” he said.
“Since Washington is unlikely to bend, North Korea can now say it offered to stop producing nuclear weapons, but the United States wouldn’t offer anything in return.”
The very thinly veiled threat that followed supports this theory.
While reiterating his commitment to finding a mutually agreeable solution, Kim warned:
“If the United States does not keep the promise it made in the eyes of the world… 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,” as quoted by AFP.
It is unclear exactly what he means by “new way” but if the diplomatic process is derailed, all bets could be off.
President Trump responded to Kim’s speech on Wednesday saying on Twitter that he was looking forward to meeting with Kim, “who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!”
“Kim Jong Un says North Korea will not make or test nuclear weapons, or give them to others – & he is ready to meet President Trump anytime.” PBS News Hour. I also look forward to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 1, 2019
What does it mean for South Korea relations?
It was no coincidence Kim’s speech was simultaneously broadcast in South Korea. Kim has made significant progress this year in fostering a relationship with his southern counterpart President Moon Jae-in and his speech reaffirmed his intention to build on this.
Preferring the Koreas to take the lead in their own peace process, rather than relying on outside forces, Kim urged all Koreans to “usher in a heyday of peace, prosperity and reunification of the Korean Peninsula by thoroughly implementing the historic North-South declarations!,” as reported by AP.
But his friendly olive branches weren’t without some thorns. He demanded Seoul stop “joint military exercises with foreign forces,” a clear reference to US-South Korea war games.
The exercises are a point of contention between the US and South Korea, with Trump wanting Seoul to pay more towards US troops stationed in the country. Kim will see this as an issue that can drive a wedge deeper into the formerly solid alliance. A move that will only stand to benefit him.
What does 2019 hold?
Following the speech, don’t expect much to change. A lot of the strategy for the year to come is a reiteration of standpoints Kim has already made public.
Diplomatic channels will remain open with the United States but it’s likely the stalemate will persist if Washington continues to insist on unilateral denuclearisation before making concessions – something that has never been a realistic outcome.
If any part of Kim’s plan is to fail, it will likely be this one. To avoid talks falling apart, the Trump administration needs to come to the table with more realistic demands and a willingness to compromise.
The blossoming relationship with South Korea will continue, albeit with less involvement from the US if Kim has his way. Both Kim and Moon have great incentive for making the alliance work, and Moon continues to sing the praises of the 35-year-old dictator and welcome the dialogue.
But if history has taught us anything, it’s that the Kim regime is highly unpredictable and it won’t take much to set international relations back to square one.
North Korea is now a nuclear power, it has made that clear and knows what a powerful bargaining chip it is. If Pyongyang doesn’t get want it wants to at least some degree, it could easily devolve into the namecalling and nuclear threats of 2017.
If, however, 2019 produces productive talks, sanctions relief, and an end-of-war declaration with the South, it will be a major victory for the ruling regime and cement Kim’s position as an international leader.
The hope for the rest, is that it will make the world a safer place.