Kim Jong-un threatens ‘a new path’ if negotiations don’t work: should the US be worried?

  • Lee Seong-hyon says North Korea’s leader needs to produce economic results and sees diplomacy as a way of getting them, with or without US cooperation
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 3:04am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 6:25am

In a surprisingly laid-back setting that reminds one of Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” at the White House, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said he remains unchanged in his commitment to denuclearisation and is ready to meet Donald Trump “any time”.

The palpably conciliatory message came as a great contrast to his words a year ago, when he warned Trump that there was a “nuclear button” at his desk targeting the United States. Kim, looking tense and unyielding at the time, added that he was not making an “empty threat”.

Kim this time said that working towards “complete denuclearisation” is an “unchanged stance” of his nation and “my resolute will”. He said North Korea had already declared that it “no longer produces, tests and uses nuclear weapons” and has taken practical steps accordingly.

“If the US responds with trustworthy corresponding actions, the relationship between the two nations will progress in a significant and speedier manner,” he said.

The annual New Year speech by Kim is the North Korean version of the US State of the Union address. It is the nation’s most authoritative policy blueprint for the coming year. As such, it is keenly watched by the outside world to get a sense of North Korea’s policy direction, especially concerning its nuclear programmes.

In Kim’s series of summit meetings last year with Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, he expressed his openness to denuclearisation. However, he maintained that it should be done in a “gradual” and “reciprocal” manner. In opposition, Washington demands that Pyongyang first unilaterally renounce its nuclear arsenal before any sanctions relief will be considered.

North Korea – the next economic powerhouse?

For several months, Pyongyang and Washington have been in a stalemate in negotiations.

At last year’s Singapore summit between Trump and Kim, the two leaders issued a joint statement that said the two nations would “start a new relationship”, “establish peace on the Korean peninsula” and “work [towards] complete denuclearisation”.

The order matters, and reflects Kim’s concerns. Kim is signalling that he should be able to trust US strategic intentions to start a new relationship before renouncing nuclear weapons.

North Korea has all along emphasised “trust-building” between Washington and Pyongyang, citing the case of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. In 2011, less than a decade after Libya declared and renounced its weapons of mass destruction programmes, Gaddafi was toppled by US-backed forces.

What Trump must offer Kim to make the deal of the century

“If the US and North Korea commit to improving relations, there is nothing we cannot do. As seen in the great transformation in inter-Korean relations, I want to hope that our relations with the United States will produce good results through mutual efforts,” Kim said.

“We’ll unquestionably reach a mutually beneficial outcome if both sides boldly put aside our preset stances, approach the negotiations based on the principle of mutual recognition and respect and propose a fair deal.”

Trump should rely more on Seoul in negotiations with North Korea

But Kim added a warning, too: if the US doesn’t keep the promise it made in front of the world and misjudges the North Korean people's patience, imposes unliteral concessions and continues with sanctions and pressure, “we also don't have any other choice but to explore a new path”.

It is easy to highlight this warning. (It has already happened.) But this is a typical North Korean recalcitrance that shouldn’t be overstretched. Analysis should consider Kim’s entire speech and its tenor. Otherwise, it will easily be taken out of context. The overarching message from Kim is that he remains open to negotiations, but that the ball is in Washington’s court.

The negotiations have been stalled for months, raising some doubts. The speech text is good material to gauge the cause of this, at least from Kim’s perspective. In particular, Kim emphasised the spirit of “fairness” in negotiations.

Obstacles to North Korean denuclearisation remain formidable

Lastly, it is also important to note how the New Year speech was structured. In Kim’s 33-minute speech, he devoted 25 minutes to domestic policy, mostly economic development. Only the remaining eight minutes were on foreign policy, especially inter-Korean relations and Pyongyang’s relationship with the US.

All politics is local, and North Korea is no exception. It is also relevant that this year is the fourth year of North Korea’s five-year economic development plan. That means Kim has to make significant progress in the economy, and naturally he is less predisposed to sabre-rattling.

This opens a window of opportunity for denuclearisation. Trump said he would look forward to meeting Kim early this year for a second summit. Shrewd preparation by Washington, in close coordination with its allies in South Korea and Japan, is warranted.

If the nuclear negotiations drag on or Pyongyang and Washington again fall back into their ritual of accusing each other of acting in bad faith, Kim remains unlikely to derail the whole negotiations process. But he is also unlikely to beg for negotiations either, given the regime’s track record.

If the negotiation deadlock persists between Washington and Pyongyang in 2019, then Kim is very likely to deepen the reconciliation and outreach drive with Seoul. This will create stress in the relationship between the US and South Korea. Even though the two allies both prioritise denuclearisation, South Korea has another priority: peace.

Having lived in tension with North Korea for the past seven decades (and having been on the brink of war a few times), it may choose to endure a certain friction with its larger ally in Washington to sustain the rare peace momentum and detente with North Korea, achieved by the unprecedented three inter-Korean summits last year.

Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul