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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared an end to moratoriums on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and threatened a demonstration of a “new strategic weapon” soon.
Analysts said the declaration, reported by state media on Wednesday, amounted to Kim putting a missile “to Donald Trump’s head” – but warned that escalation by Pyongyang would probably backfire.
Trump himself responded by saying he believed Kim would stick to his commitments on denuclearization.
“We did sign a contract, talking about denuclearization. That was the number one sentence, denuclearization, that was done in Singapore. I think he’s a man of his word,” a tuxedo-wearing Trump told reporters before heading into New Year festivities at his holiday retreat in Florida.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Kim to “take a different course” and stressed that the US wanted “peace not confrontation” with the North.
The North has previously fired missiles capable of reaching the entire US mainland, and has carried out six nuclear tests, the last of them 16 times the size of the Hiroshima blast, according to the highest estimates.
A self-imposed ban on such tests – Kim declared they were no longer needed – has been a centerpiece of the nuclear diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington over the past two years, which has seen three meetings between Kim and US President Donald Trump, but little tangible progress.
Any actual test is likely to infuriate Trump, who has repeatedly referred to Kim’s “promise” to him not to carry them out, and has played down launches of shorter-range weapons.
Skips New Year speech?
Kim appeared to skip his set-piece New Year speech Wednesday, with analysts suggesting the move may have been to avoid implicitly admitting mistakes in the last two years of diplomacy with the US.
Kim has been giving the annual speech since 2013, after he revived the tradition started by his grandfather – North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung.
It has been a key moment in the North Korean political calendar, reviewing the past and setting out goals for the future, and printed in full in the Rodong Sinmun mouthpiece newspaper.
At first he wore a party uniform and stood at a lectern to address troops, but the format has evolved over time as Pyongyang modernizes its messaging, and last year he sat in his office in a Western-style suit and tie.
But this year there was no January 1 morning broadcast – as has been standard recently –or even at noon, considered the latest likely time.
Instead state television showed a lengthy readout of Kim’s address at the four-day party meeting, over footage of the leader addressing top officials.
Park Won-gon, a professor of international studies at Handong University in South Korea, said the change of format may have been to avoid “burdening” Kim.
“There is a huge difference between giving a New Year’s speech with your own voice and announcing what has been decided at the plenary meeting,” he said.
“When you give a speech, this means you are giving a direct message to North Korean citizens on top of the outside world.
“This may require you to inevitably admit that your past approach has been flawed.”
The move may also have been intended to soften the message, added Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“By giving domestic facing remarks at a party meeting, Kim could strike an assertive tone without looking as belligerent had he made nuclear threats in a stand alone address.”
Negotiations between the two sides have been largely deadlocked since the breakup of their Hanoi summit in February, and the North set the US an end-of-year deadline for it to offer fresh concessions on sanctions relief, or it would adopt a “new way.”
“There is no ground for us to get unilaterally bound to the commitment any longer,” the official KCNA news agency cited Kim as telling top ruling party officials.
“The world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future,” he added, referring to the North by its official title.
Kim acknowledged the impact of international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its weapons programs, but made clear that the North was willing to pay the price to preserve its nuclear capability.
“The US is raising demands contrary to the fundamental interests of our state and is adopting a brigandish attitude,” KCNA cited him as saying.
Washington had “conducted tens of big and small joint military drills which its president personally promised to stop” and sent high-tech military equipment to the South, he said.
“We can never sell our dignity,” he added, saying Pyongyang would “shift to a shocking actual action to make [the US] pay for the pains sustained by our people”.
For months, Pyongyang has been demanding the easing of international sanctions imposed over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, while Washington has insisted North Korea take more tangible steps towards giving them up.
“North Korea has, in effect, put an ICBM to Donald Trump’s head in order to gain the two concessions it wants most: sanctions relief and some sort of security guarantee,” said Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest in Washington.
“Kim Jong-un is playing a dangerous game of geopolitical chicken,” he added.
“He is gambling that threatening another demonstration of his ability to hit the US homeland with a nuclear weapon will somehow push America into granting more concessions.”
But the strategy was risky, he said, as Washington was likely to respond with “more sanctions, an increased military presence in East Asia and more fire and fury style threats coming from Donald Trump’s Twitter account.”
The US has already indicated that it will react if the North carries out a long-range missile test.
Speaking to Fox News and CBS after Kim’s announcement, Secretary of State Pompeo said a resumption of nuclear and missile tests would be “deeply disappointing”.
“We hope that Chairman Kim will take a different course … that he’ll choose peace and prosperity over conflict and war,” Pompeo said.
“We want peace, not confrontation,” he added.
An ICBM launch would also likely frustrate China, the North’s key diplomatic backer and provider of trade and aid, which always stresses stability in a region it regards as its own back yard.
But ties between Pyongyang and Beijing have warmed markedly in the past two years, with Chinese President Xi Jinping paying his first visit to the North as head of state in June.