Kim Jong-un has warned the United States that the “launch button” for North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is always within easy reach. But in his traditional New Year address, he also offered a potential olive branch when he suggested he was “open to dialogue” with South Korea.
Switching between rhetoric and reconciliation, the North Korean leader stressed that the entire US was within his nuclear crosshairs.
“The whole territory of the US is within the range of our nuclear strike and a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office, and this is just a reality, not a threat,” he said.
But in an attempt to row back from confrontation, Kim suggested he was “open to dialogue” with Seoul. He also hinted that North Korea could also send a team to the Winter Olympics at the South Korean skiing resort of Pyeongchang next month. North Korean participation in the Games has long been a hope of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“North Korea’s participation in the Winter Games will be a good opportunity to showcase the national pride and we hope the Games will be a success,” Kim said. “Officials from the two Koreas may urgently meet to discuss the possibility.”
The move was broadly welcomed by Lee Hee-beom, the president of the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee, and the South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Last month, Moon said North Korea’s participation in the Games would ensure the “safety of the Pyeongchang Olympics”, and proposed that Seoul and Washington postpone large military drills.
“The [organizing committee] will discuss relevant matters with the South Korean government as well as the International Olympic Committee,” Lee told the media.“[But we] enthusiastically welcome it. It’s like a New Year’s gift.”
Yet Kim’s bellicose comments on Monday will still raise hackles in Washington. Donald Trump, the US President, was at his exclusive Florida resort in Florida’s Mar-a-Lago when he was told of the speech, which was broadcast on North Korea state television.
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” Trump said when asked by the US media to respond to Kim’s “nuclear button” threat and offer of dialogue.
During the past 12 months, North Korea has come under increased pressure from sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the European Union and the US after a series of high-profile missile tests.
Kim’s regime has also carried out six underground nuclear experiments, including one last year. In November, Pyongyang tested what it called its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of delivering a warhead to the continental US.
The move triggered a new round of UN sanctions, including a resolution to cut oil imports by 90%. On Sunday, South Korean authorities announced they had seized a second ship suspected of supplying oil to North Korea in violation of international sanctions.
The Panama-flagged tanker, which is named Koti, is being held at a port near the western city of Pyeongtaek. Seoul had already impounded a Hong Kong-registered vessel it suspected of secretly transferring 600 tonnes of refined oil to a North Korean ship.
It was also reported that Russian tankers had supplied fuel to Kim’s regime on at least three occasions in recent months, two senior Western European security sources told Reuters.
“There is no evidence that this is backed by the Russian state but these Russian vessels are giving a lifeline to the North Koreans,” one of the European security sources said.
As sanctions bite hard into the country’s economy, Pyongyang has looked to Beijing to ease the pain. But last week Trump blamed China for allowing illegal oil shipments to reach the country.
In a tweet, he said they had been “caught red-handed” after the Hong Kong-registered vessel was seized. But the Chinese Foreign Ministry quickly denied the claim, stating the situation the US president “mentioned absolutely did not exist.”
“China has been comprehensively and strictly implementing the United Nations Security Council resolutions and fulfilling its due international obligations,” Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, told the media.