People watch the New Year speech by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a TV at a railway station in Seoul on January 1, 2019. North Korea could consider a change of approach if the US maintains its sanctions on the nuclear-armed country, leader Kim Jong Un warned. Photo: Jung Yeon-je / AFP
People watch the New Year speech by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a TV at a railway station in Seoul on January 1, 2019. North Korea could consider a change of approach if the US maintains its sanctions on the nuclear-armed country, leader Kim Jong Un warned. Photo: Jung Yeon-je / AFP

In his New Year’s Day speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reiterated his commitment to denuclearization and said he was willing to meet US President Donald Trump at any time, but also warned that his state could pursue different initiatives if the US continues its sanctions and pressure tactics.

In international statesman mode, a grey-suited Kim forewent his usual flamboyant tunic, and instead of speaking at a podium, delivered his address from a leather armchair in a book-lined, wood-paneled office.

The speech was eagerly anticipated in South Korea and elsewhere given that last year, the conciliatory messaging in Kim’s  New Year’s Day address led to a range of breakthroughs for the previously isolated leader and his state. It opened the door to the North’s appearance at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea and led to a round of first-ever summits between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and US President Donald Trump.

This year, Kim’s key messaging was binary. He also appeared to be aiming at three distinct audiences: the United States, South Korea and his domestic populace.

Addressing America

“I am willing to sit down with the United States’ president at any time for an outcome that the international community would welcome,” he said.

Following the June 2018 summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore, ministerial-level envoys from the two states have failed to make any breakthroughs on denuclearization or bilateral relations. Trump has said he hopes to meet Kim early in 2019 for a second summit, but no date or location has yet been set.

Kim expressed “resolute commitment” to the Singapore summit declaration, adding: “We will not make nuclear weapons and we will not proliferate nuclear weapons, and I have said this, and I will say this again now.”

But he made clear his expectation that Washington should respond to his goodwill. “If the United States can show corresponding measures, the relationship between the two countries will, through many processes, accelerate for the better,” he said.

Thus far, the United States has been unwilling to offer concessions to the North, such as sanctions relief, in the absence of concrete steps on denuclearization. In this vein, Kim sounded a warning.

“If the United States does not keep its promise to the international community and misjudges our patience and intention and continues with the sanctions, then we have no choice for the sake of national interest and peace on the Korean Peninsula to come up with new initiatives and new measures,” he said.

The “US promise” appears to refer to the post-summit declaration in Singapore.

That document called for the two nations to carry out four major measures – reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula, advance bilateral ties, work toward denuclearization and return the remains of Korean War casualties.

However, in the months since, the US has largely ignored the first two, stressing only denuclearization, and has been frustrated at the lack of progress on that front. North Korea has returned remains and continues – with some South Korean support – to press for sanctions relief, as well as an end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which halted with an armistice but no peace treaty.

What Kim’s “new initiatives and measures” might be were left to the imagination, but North Korea has, in a self-imposed moratorium, refrained from missile and nuclear tests in 2018.

To his southern brethren

In statements apparently aimed at South Korea – which is pressing ahead with a range of cultural, sports and other projects aimed a alleviating strains with North Korea, but is unable to engage the regime economically in any way due to international sanctions – Kim said he was willing “without preconditions” to restart operations at the Mount Kumgang tourist zone and the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

The two inter-Korean projects, built in enclaves inside North Korea with South Korean capital, have been shut down by Seoul. The tourist complex was suspended in 2008 after a South Korean visitor was shot dead by a North Korean soldier, apparently by accident. The industrial zone was closed in 2016 amid high inter-Korean tensions.

Kim also called for a continued halt of war games held between South Korea and its allies, predominantly the United States. The biggest of the exercises, which North Korea insists are preparations for invasion and which Seoul and Washington say are defensive in nature, customarily take place in the spring.

Trump promised Kim in Singapore that the exercises would be halted in 2018. Given Seoul’s currently conciliatory stance towards Pyongyang, it seems unlikely at this point that they will proceed in 2019. Moon, in his own new year’s message posted on the Internet, said he was working to ensure “irreversible” peace for the Koreas in 2019.

Kim has deployed a charm offensive toward South Korea, likely in recognition of the stalled progress in US relations, and this has been marked most notably by bonhomie between himself and Moon.

The last inter-Korean summit took place, with great fanfare, in October in Pyongyang, the capital of the North. But for reasons which remain unclear, Kim did not come to Seoul for a hugely anticipated visit in December. That would have been historic: All meetings between leaders from the two Koreas thus far have been held in either Pyongyang or the Demilitarized Zone.

However, in a letter sent to Moon on Sunday, and made public by the South Korean presidential office, Kim said he anticipated frequent meetings with Moon in 2019.

Kim also hailed military agreements signed between both Koreas in September that include steps for a no-fly zone over the DMZ, the demilitarization of the Han River estuary, which serves Seoul and its port of Incheon, and the destruction of minor facilities inside the DMZ as “a de facto non-aggression declaration.”

He urged both states to “fight towards unification by and for Koreans,” insisting that “foreign powers” should not be allowed to interfere in the reunification process.

However, the steps agreed to by Pyongyang and Seoul last year were hardly a unification process, given the diametrically opposed systems in the two Koreas and the massive wealth gap dividing their economies.

Even so, in a sign of the détente that is flowing across the Demilitarized Zone, Kim’s speech (believed to be pre-recorded) was – for the first time – broadcast in South Korea, at the same time as it was shown in the North. Customarily, only edited highlights of North Korean speeches and events have been shown on South Korean TV.

For North Koreans

Meanwhile, much of Kim’s speech – aimed at a domestic audience – was devoted to upgrading the national economy.

He mentioned privatized agriculture, light industry, as well as the need to upgrade energy generation and self-sufficiency in technologies, while emphasizing incentivization and managerial upgrades.

Prior to 2018, Kim’s “byungjin” policy line had been to seek strategic weapons while advancing the economy in tandem. Throughout 2018, however, he put most emphasis on economic growth.

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