North Korea stands at the crossroads of two paths for 2019.
If it pursues one path, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un will strengthen a budding relationship with South Korea and, perhaps, reach a more concrete denuclearization agreement after a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Tensions will subside on the Korean Peninsula, more separated families will be reunited across the border between North and South, and the world will be a more peaceful place.
But if it turns to the other path, Kim will go back to building up his nuclear arsenal in spite of the vague denuclearization agreement he signed with Trump at their first summit last June. The two volatile leaders will eventually butt heads again, prompting the North to accelerate its nuclear program and — potentially — sparking a military conflict with the U.S. or South Korea.
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Kim hinted at both possibilities in his New Year’s address on Tuesday. The North Korean dictator said he is ready to meet Trump at any time to discuss their common goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but he’s also ready for conflict if the U.S. does not ease sanctions and halt its joint military drills with the South. Kim also demonstrated that his definition of denuclearization is different from Trump’s.
“If the United States takes sincere measures and corresponding action to our leading and pre-emptive (denuclearization) efforts, then (U.S.-North Korea) relations will advance at a fast and excellent pace through the process of implementing (such) definite and groundbreaking measures,” Kim said in his speech.
However, he said North Korea might be “compelled to explore a new path” to defend its sovereignty if the U.S. “seeks to force something upon us unilaterally… and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure.”
The U.S. has called for a full accounting of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and measurable, verifiable steps toward its disarmament, but the North has bristled at those requests. It also wants the U.S. to make the first move by lifting sanctions.
North Korean leaders traditionally use New Year’s statements to announce major policy goals for the year ahead. Kim used his 2018 New Year’s speech to launch a new diplomatic approach with Seoul and Washington, which led to his meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump. However, he also used that speech to announce that North Korea allegedly had nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking at the mainland U.S.
Analysts say Kim’s comments this year signal that he’s willing to stay in talks with Washington and Seoul, but only on his terms.
“North Korea seems determined in 2019 to receive some sort of sanctions relief … The challenge, however, is will Team Trump be willing to back away from its position of zero sanctions relief?” said Harry Kazianis at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest.
“Kim’s remarks seem to suggest his patience with America is wearing thin,” Kazianis told Reuters.
What does a denuclearized Korean Peninsula mean to Kim Jong Un?
In his speech, Kim said North Korea has already committed that “we will no further create or test nuclear weapons and will not use or spread them.” However, he did not promise to get rid of his existing weapons.
Kim also said he was honouring the agreement he signed with Trump at their summit in Singapore on June 12. The agreement indicated that both sides would work toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but it did not include steps for each side to perform.
The North did destroy its only known nuclear testing site and a key missile engine facility in 2018, but U.S. officials say those steps were not confirmed and can be easily reversed. The North Koreans have also refused to let international arms inspectors look at their nuclear arsenal.
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Adam Mount, a senior analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said Kim appears to be working toward an agreement that falls short of a full disarmament but could still represent a major limitation of the North Korean threat — a cap that essentially freezes the North’s nuclear program from growing or advancing further. In exchange, the United States would have to offer major concessions, including sanctions relief.
“U.S. negotiators should move decisively in the new year to find out how far Kim is willing to go toward a verified cap on his arsenal. Discussions on reducing or eliminating that arsenal come later,” Mount said in an email to the Associated Press.
Despite Kim’s talk of halting his nuclear weapons program, private analysts have suggested that the North continued to develop weapons and build missile sites after the June 12 summit. Satellite imagery appeared to show new work being conducted at missile sites in the second half of 2018.
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“Over the last year, signs of continued work on the arsenal were alarming but not duplicitous because there was never a commitment to stop those activities,” Mount said. “That may no longer be true, raising the risk that the White House feels cheated rather than just stonewalled.”
Despite concerns about North Korea’s weapons-related activities, Trump remains outwardly confident in the deal he struck with Kim. He’s also stopped hurling insults at the North Korean leader since their meeting.
“We fell in love,” Trump said in late September when discussing a series of letters he exchanged with Kim after their summit.
The two sides are now trying to set up a second summit.
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On Dec. 24, Trump tweeted that his team was making progress with North Korea.
“Looking forward to my next summit with Chairman Kim!” he tweeted.
No date has been set for the summit at this point.
A softer relationship with South Korea
Kim declared in his speech that the North’s relationship with the South has reached a “completely new phase,” following three summits with South Korea’s Moon in 2018.
The remarks come two days after Kim sent a letter to the South in which he said he was looking forward to meeting with Moon again in 2019, perhaps even in Seoul.
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Relations have softened significantly between the two Koreas. They iced a unified women’s hockey team at the Winter Olympics in Seoul last year, and dozens of South Koreans were permitted to briefly reunite with relatives living in the North, many of them for the first time since the Korean War broke out.
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Kim and Moon also reached an agreement to remove many of the guard posts and armaments along the demilitarized zone between the two nations.
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But North Korea remains irritated by the South’s alliance with the U.S. Kim said in his speech that he wants to see the South “completely stop” joint military drills with the U.S. and force the Americans to remove their strategic weapons systems from the region.
He also made a nationalistic call urging for stronger inter-Korean co-operation and said the North is ready to resume operations at a jointly run factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and restart South Korean tours to the North’s Diamond Mountain resort. Neither of those is possible for South Korea unless sanctions are removed.
South Korea’s government welcomed what it described as Kim’s commitment to peace in a statement on Tuesday. Seoul said it plans to work closely with the international community for the denuclearization of the peninsula while also advancing inter-Korean relations to an “irreversible level.”
The Korean War was fought from 1950-53 and ended in a truce signed by North Korea, the U.S. and China. The North and South are still technically at war, although both sides have said they want to establish a solid framework for peace.
—With files from Reuters and the Associated Press