Following what was a landmark 2018 for isolated North Korea – a year when leader Kim Jong Un held three historic meetings with his South Korean counterpart and a captivating summit with “imperialist” President Donald Trump – Kim used a New Year’s Eve address to try and browbeat the US into offering some sanctions relief.
In a veiled threat to break off talks, Kim threatened to take a “new path” on nuclear talks if the US doesn’t acquiesce to the Hermit Kingdom’s demands.
While Kim affirmed his willingness to meet with Trump (the leaders have agreed to a second summit, but the details have not been set), he didn’t offer any concessions to help advance negotiations, which have stalled over the US’s insistence that the North finish the process of denuclearlization before economic sanctions are lifted. Meanwhile, the North has demanded that the US gradually lift sanctions as the North hits certain benchmarks.
The North has continued to flout sanctions by arranging ship-to-ship transfers of oil and other energy products. These have often been facilitated by China, Russia and Iran – a sign that the North has continued to cozy up to Moscow, Tehran and Beijing even as it pursues warmer relations with Washington and Seoul. Some intelligence analysts cite this – as well as satellite images revealing more secret missile bases – as evidence that the North is merely toying with the US to try and wrangle some relief from stifling sanctions, and that Kim has no intention of following through on his denuclearization promises.
According to Bloomberg, Kim said he’d be willing to work out a compromise that would be “welcomed by the international community.”
“I am willing to sit with the U.S. president any time in the future and will strive to produce outcomes that would be welcomed by the international community,” Kim said, wearing a suit and tie and seated in a plush leather chair overlooked by paintings of his father and grandfather at work.
“However, if the United States does not deliver its promise and misjudge our people’s patience, making unilateral demands to continue sanctions and put pressure on us, we will have no choice but to seek a new path to protect the country’s independence, interests and peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Kim said.
The speech was well received by the North’s neighbors, with South Korea heralding Kim’s decision to publicly reference “complete denuclearization for the first time.
Kim’s remarks also appeared intended to appeal to neighbors such as China and South Korea, who the U.S. needs to help maintain sanctions pressure. Kim touted his meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and China’s Xi Jinping in his speech, expressing a desire to expand ties in 2019.
South Korea praised the speech, noting it was the first time Kim had uttered the term “complete denuclearization” in public. “Chairman Kim’s strong determination will be positive for smoothly resolving the Korean issue in the new year,” Moon spokesman Kim Eui-keum said.
Kim also demanded that any deal between the US and the North include a permanent halt to military exercises on the Korean peninsula. Exercises were temporarily halted this year as the US pursued its talks with the North. Bloomberg also reported that Kim sent a personal letter to Trump ahead of the New Year’s holiday.
However, while Kim demonstrated a measured tone during his speech, analysts said the US and the North were no closer to a breakthrough.
“North Korea has again restated its position, which remains unchanged,” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “The prospect of the second U.S.-DPRK summit taking place soon is not any better than yesterday,” Go said, referring to North Korea’s formal name.
We now await a response from President Trump, or perhaps another affirmation from the US that the two sides are nearing an agreement on when the second summit will be held.