LONDON—North Korean leader Kim Jong Un chose a dark grey Western-style suit, white shirt and soft grey tie for the occasion of a New Year’s address carefully tailored to show he’s open to another meeting with President Donald Trump but not about to yield on the critical question — the central question — of denuclearization.
As the clock on the desk behind him ticked a few minutes past midnight, Kim threatened to turn Trump’s fairy-tale peace into an explosive pumpkin, but after all the verbiage was over it appeared little had changed in a stalemate that has dragged on for months.
Yes, said the official report on Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, Kim was “always ready to sit together with the U.S. president any time in the future.” But “if the U.S. fails to carry out its promise,” he warned, “we might be compelled to explore a new path for defending the sovereignty of our country and supreme interests of our state and achieving peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.”
Whatever “promise” or “path” he has in mind, Kim conspicuously overlooked U.S. demands for North Korea to abandon completely its nuclear weapons program, get rid of its nukes and destroy the facilities for making them. And, of course, there was no mention of what the Americans keep asking for—an inventory of where the hell Pyongyang is storing all that stuff. There was no doubt, however, about Kim’s implicit threat if what he calls “corresponding measures” by the U.S. are not delivered in return for whatever he does to bring about denuclearization.
"Kim is basically saying there is a deal to be had here that would end the threat to the U.S., if the U.S. is willing to accept the premise of North Korea as a responsible nuclear weapons state that will cap production and not proliferate," said Georgetown University professor Victor Cha, who served on the national security council during the presidency of George W. Bush. But Cha asked, "Is Trump so beleaguered with the shutdown, the loss of the House, that he will take this offer?"
North Korea’s propaganda machine has repeatedly reminded everyone of the explosion of a nuclear test site at Punggye-ri (believed to have already been destroyed in the North’s last nuclear test in September 2017) and the destruction of a site for building the engines for long-range missiles, also believed to have been largely useless.
“These are not new positions,” said Evans Revere, a former State Department official who is expert on Korea, but Kim has now made them “the price” that the U.S. and South Korea “must pay” to avoid “nuclear and missile testing.”
As for seriously going ahead with denuclearization, North Korea has expressed no doubts as to whether the United States really did remove its nukes from South Korea in 1991 during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, but Kim views the warheads carried by U.S. ships and planes out of bases in Japan, Guam and even Hawaii as a still more serious threat—and grounds for sticking to his own program.
"Kim is so skittish about taking steps ahead of the U.S. on denuclearization because he does not believe the U.S. nuclear threat has subsided yet," said Kim Sung-hak, expert on nuclear issues at Hanyang University. "North Korea is unwilling to take further steps unless the U.S. gives what it wants as proof of the deal in terms of security of the regime."
Ultimately, said Revere, North Korea “hopes to compel the U.S. to begin to dismantle the thing that it fears the most”—the U.S.-South Korean alliance, U.S. forces in the South and the region, “the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and the U.S. ability to threaten” the North.
Kim, sitting in an enormous leather easy chair, clearly had the ongoing U.S. nuclear threat in mind as he read from the text of his 30-minute speech, translated by KCNA. The U.S., he advised, must not “seek to force something upon the DPRK”—Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—while U.S. policy “remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure upon the DPRK.”
Specifically, the U.S. and United Nations have to remove some if not all the sanctions imposed after the North’s nuclear and long-range missile tests before Kim orders another show of denuclearization.
While disappointed by the failure of the U.S. to accept whatever he’s done so far to carry out “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” as he and Trump promised in their summit in Singapore in June, Kim left no doubt that he still has confidence in his relationship with Trump.
Another such meeting, he said, might well “produce results welcomed by the international community.” In fact, the speech appeared to have been aimed right at Trump. The setting bore a certain similarity to the Oval Office. Resting on the desk behind him were framed photographs of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who founded the DPRK after his return from the Soviet Union in 1945 and ruled for nearly half a century until his death in 1994, and his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011 after grooming Kim Jong Un to succeed him.
“It was a brilliantly crafted performance,” said David Maxwell, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Kim wants to portray himself as a legitimate leader in the international community both superior to Moon Jae-in and an equal to Donald Trump. Delivering the speech from his well-appointed study with the accompanying background videos highlighting economic development was well thought out and makes Kim appear normal, rational, and someone whom the international community can embrace and with whom it can negotiate.”
In a reminder of Trump’s shock decision, right after the June summit, to cancel major U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, Kim railed against smaller ongoing exercises that U.S. and South Korean officers see as vital to the alliance.
“Joint military exercises with outside forces should no longer be allowed and deployment of war equipment such as foreign strategic assets should be completely stopped,” he said, alluding to massive South Korean arms purchases.Those comments sought to deepen the wedge between the U.S. and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, who has already met Kim three times and still hopes he will come to Seoul for the first visit to the South Korean capital by a North Korean leader.
Kim’s “continued pursuit of positive North-South relations appears to be a statement that he is willing to pursue that relationship separate from denuclearization with the U.S.,” said Maxwell, predicting “he will continue to work to split” the U.S.-South Korean alliance—“a long-standing objective of regime strategy.” The address also deepened differences between Moon’s government and the main opposition Liberty Korea Party. A Moon spokesman saw it as having “a positive effect on resolving the Korean Peninsula issue this year” while the conservative leader Kim Byong-joon observed “no progress in the position on North Korea's denuclearization.”