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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivers a speech in North Korea. Photo: AP

Kim Jong-un New Year speech: ‘no choice but to consider a new path if US doesn’t keep its promises’

  • The North Korean leader gave his annual address on Tuesday, setting the tone for domestic, inter-Korean and foreign policy amid stalled nuclear talks with the United States
North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has renewed a pledge to denuclearise the Korean peninsula despite stalled negotiations with the US, but warned he could just as quickly resume his nuclear weapons programme if sanctions are not lifted.

“It is my firm willingness to achieve a permanent peace regime and the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, Kim said in his New Year’s Day speech on Tuesday.

Speaking from an armchair in a stately office, the young leader warned that the North may also be forced to find a “new path” towards peace and denuclearisation should the United States fail to carry out its end of the agreement.

“If the US does not keep its promise made in front of the whole world,” Kim said, “we may be Left with no choice but to consider a new way to safeguard our sovereignty and interests.”

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Following a rapid diplomatic rapprochement that began with the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in the South, Kim and US President Donald Trump signed an agreement to work towards the “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” in Singapore last June.

But the two countries still disagree over what the Singapore pact actually means, causing follow-up negotiations to stall.

Among the issues hampering denuclearisation negotiations is Washington’s request for the North to declare its nuclear and missile facilities.

“The North evidently believe that providing such a declaration would essentially be providing the US with a target list should negotiations fail,” Robert S. Litwak at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars wrote on 38 North website.

North Korea has a nuclear arsenal which could expand to almost half the size of the United Kingdom by 2020, Litwak said.

“A near-term full rollback of the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities is not a realistic possibility”, he said.
People watch a TV news on a screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's New Year's speech, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: AP

North Korea has said it has shown sincerity in holding up its side of the Singapore denuclearisation pact by closing its nuclear weapons test site, beginning to dismantle its Sohae long-range missile engine test stand and launch platform, and showing a willingness to take down facilities in Yongbyon should the US take corresponding steps.

But it has accused the US of being “gangster-like” in its sanctions approach. Washington, meanwhile, has said it will maintain sanctions until the “final, fully verified denuclearisation” of the North.

In Tuesday’s speech, however, Kim said he was willing to meet Trump again “at any time”, reflecting the US president’s comments that he too wants a second summit with the North’s leader this year.

US President Donald Trump gestures as he meets with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore last June. Photo: AFP

“While strongly calling for sanctions relief, Kim Jong-un was putting emphasis on resolving the nuclear issue through peaceful dialogue,” said Professor Kim Yong-hyun, from Dongguk Univesity in South Korea.

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“By saying it like this, Kim has sent the ball to Trump’s court.”

Professor Kim Yong-hyun said another salient point in Kim Jong-un’s address was his acknowledgement of the inter-Korean agreement preventing accidental armed clashes and easing military tensions – a pact signed with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in September.

The North’s leader described the agreement as a “non-aggression pact in effect”, and stressed the need for both Koreas to end cold war rivalries and move towards a peaceful coexistence.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shake hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas. Photo: Reuters

South Korea’s Unification Ministry and President Moon’s spokesman Kimk Eui-gyeom welcomed Kim’s New Year comments.

Kimk said Kim’s comments were a “firm commitment” to improving inter-Korean relations and developing US ties, and may lead to a “peaceful settlement of the Korean peninsula issue this year”.

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However, breaking the negotiations deadlock may prove more difficult than a single speech. Professor Yang Moo-jin, from the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the US strategy of “maximum pressure” and sanctions may only deepen the North’s suspicion about Trump’s intention to hold his side of the Singapore agreement.

In a move that may help to get the ball rolling, Stephen Biegun, the US Special Representative for North Korea, said last month that Washington was willing to discuss trust-building initiatives with Pyongyang. He suggested the US may ease a travel ban for Americans heading to the North for humanitarian reasons.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: kim warns of ‘new path’ if u.s. fails