US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a combination photo. Photos: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque, KCNA/Handout via Reuters

US President Donald Trump responded to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address with a warning that the US nuclear arsenal is bigger and better than North Korea’s – a warning that is unlikely to be well received on either side of the DMZ.

While Trump’s tweets do not necessarily reflect policy, the message may pour cold water on the sudden thaw that appears set to heat up currently frigid relations between the two Koreas. On January 1, Kim broadcast a conciliatory New Year’s message toward the South. On January 2, Seoul’s Unification Ministry acted with alacrity, suggesting high-level inter-Korean talks on January 9. Seoul is currently awaiting Pyongyang’s response to that offer.

Trump’s reaction to Kim’s address was markedly different in both tone and content to the South Korean response.

On the evening of January 2, Trump tweeted: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

In an earlier tweet the same evening, Trump had noted that sanctions were having an impact on North Korea, adding, “Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not – we will see!”

“Rocket man” is Trump’s derisory term for Kim.

In his customary New Year’s address, Kim had warned, “The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, and a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat.” The North Korea leader had also said he would mass-produce nuclear arms, but added,“These weapons will be used only if our security is threatened.”

The US president’s second tweet appeared to point not just to the massive disparity between the US and North Korean atomic arsenals, but also to the fact that the North Korean nuclear force is likely not yet fully operational. It is unclear whether Pyongyang’s scientists have appropriate re-entry vehicles – which bring the final stage of ballistic missiles back into the Earth’s atmosphere – or targeting systems. Nor has the regime conducted an atmospheric nuclear test.

Perhaps in a realization that his belligerent approach toward the United States in 2017 had not produced desired outcomes, Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s message had been conciliatory toward Seoul

Perhaps in a realization that his belligerent approach toward the United States in 2017 had not produced desired outcomes, Kim’s New Year’s message had been conciliatory toward Seoul.

“It’s about time that the North and the South sit down and seriously discuss how to improve inter-Korean relations by ourselves and dramatically open up,” Kim said. He added that he wished for the success of the Winter Olympics, being held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February, and was ready to send a delegation.

Engagement with North Korea has long been a policy objective of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has also called for a North Korean presence at the Winter Games as a starting point.

Analysts were torn between praising Trump’s first tweet and criticizing his second.

“The first was a reasonable response – he did not try to undercut Moon – but the second was between juvenile and self-parody,” said John Delury, an associate professor of Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul. “I think he doesn’t want to lose the foil of Kim, and I think Kim may not want to lose the foil of Trump – they both work off their domestic political theaters.”

But at a time when US officials are reportedly mulling strikes on North Korean weapons sites while South Korean officials are keenly pursuing dialogue with the North, Seoul and Washington need to be wary of moves by Pyongyang to drive a wedge between the two allies, one US expert warned.

“Kim talked about ‘continuing to forge ahead to achieve the final victory of the revolution,’” said Tara O, an adjunct fellow at the think-tank Pacific Forum CSIS, in an analysis of his New Year’s speech. “By ‘final victory,’ Kim is referring to North Korea’s long-stated goal of unifying the Korean Peninsula under his regime’s rule. Breaking the alliance and getting the US military off the peninsula is a key step toward that goal.”

O, author of The Collapse of North Korea and a retired US Air Force colonel, also noted that Kim had talked about handling inter-Korean relations among “uriminjokkiri” – which means “’among our people,’ meaning, without the US,” she explained.

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