Kim Jong Un’s New Years’ Address Seen As More Gambit Than Threat

Eugene Whong
kju-new-year-2019 This picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivering an address to mark the New Year at an undisclosed location on January 1, 2019.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during his New Year’s address said that his regime is committed to denuclearization, but only if the United States lives up to its end of the bargain and drops economic sanctions – a stance U.S. experts said left room for more negotiations.

During the 30-minute speech on Tuesday, an annual affair that draws comparisons with the U.S. president’s State of the Union address, Kim said that he was ready to meet with President Trump at any time, and that relations with the U.S. could progress quickly.

“If the United States does not keep its promises,” and “persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic, we might be compelled to find a new path to defend the sovereignty of the country,” Kim said during the address.

Kim did not elaborate on what he meant by “new path” but the phrasing raised fears of a return to missile and nuclear tests that raised tensions on the Korean peninsula in 2017 before giving way to a series of summits last year.

“It’s more like a diplomatic gambit rather than a signal that North Korea is going to resume [nuclear program-related] testing,” said the Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow Bruce Klingner, in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.

“I think it’s trying to keep things in the diplomatic lane at least for some time rather than it being a signal that they see the negotiation has failed and [they are] walking away from them,” added Klingner.

Robert Carlin, a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center, said it was critical to special attention to the specific wording of the “new path” statement.

“Kim warned that, quote, ‘We might be compelled to explore a new path.’ Notice, ‘might be,’ not ‘will be’,” said Carlin during a press call for the U.S.-based North Korea analysis website 38 North.

“That’s not really a threat; it’s a soft formulation, very deliberately, because Kim did not want to overshadow all the positive things that he said, and it was, in my mind, quite extraordinary, all the attention he paid to the question of negotiations with the United States,” said Carlin.

One particular section of Kim’s address dealt with joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, which the Trump administration halted in 2018.

“We maintain that the joint military exercises with foreign forces, which constitute the source of aggravating the situation on the Korean peninsula, should no longer be permitted,” Kim said.

Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction Gary Samore told RFA, “I think as long as Kim Jong Un continues to observe the moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, Trump will continue to suspend major exercises.”

Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball agreed, saying, “If two sides take action-for-action steps in the direction of denuclearization and a peace regime, it becomes more likely that we can get to the point where North Korea will remove nuclear weapons and its production capacity and the U.S. and South Korea will no longer consider it necessary to hold major joint military exercises and send strategic assets into the region close to North Korea.”

RAND Corporation Senior Defense Researcher Bruce Bennett was not as optimistic.

“I think at this stage, the U.S. attitude is ‘we will try to make every effort to get negotiations settled with North Korea,’” Bennet said.

But he suggested the U.S. stance would change if it became clear Pyongyang was not interested in serious disarmament talks.

38 North noted in their press call that Kim’s promise to denuclearize was worded in such a way that there is little room for ambiguity.

“We declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them, and we have taken various practical measures,” said Kim.

“Almost everyone seems to miss the significance of the fact that Kim is saying that the North has proclaimed it would not produce nuclear weapons,” said Carlin, adding, “As far as I know, they haven’t said anything like that since January, 1992.”

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies' senior fellow David Maxwell warned against being too eager to believe Kim’s words, telling RFA, “He still wants to keep [nuclear weapons], I don’t see any intention of giving them up.”

“The U.S is not going to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state, like Pakistan,” Maxwell added.

Additional reporting by Sangmin Lee, Soyoung Kim and Yewon Ji.

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