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Kim warns of ‘new path’ if U.S. talks stall

But North’s leader says he’s willing to meet Trump at ‘any time’
Jan 02,2019
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivers his New Year’s address on Tuesday, which was aired by North Korea’s Central TV at 9 a.m. on Jan. 1. [RODONG SINMUN]
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his resolve to pursue denuclearization in his New Year’s address on Tuesday, but warned that Pyongyang would pursue a “new path” if Washington continues to strong-arm his country with sanctions.

“I am and will always be willing to sit down again with the U.S. president at any time,” Kim said in reference to the possibility of a second U.S.-North Korea summit, recently hinted at several times by U.S. President Donald Trump. “I will endeavor to produce a result welcomed by the international community.”

Wearing a Western suit and tie for the third New Year’s address in a row, Kim delivered his 2019 speech seated in a leather armchair in what looked like a private study, with reverent portraits of his father and grandfather — the North’s former leaders — hanging on walls behind him.

While his 30-minute speech was addressed to a domestic audience like the United States’ State of the Union, it contained an unmistakable message to the world — and the United States in particular — at a time when denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea have been at an impasse for months.

Stressing that the North had implemented “practical measures” towards denuclearization like halting the further building and testing of nuclear weapons, Kim said the negotiations would proceed with “greater certainty and innovation” if the United States responded with “trustworthy and corresponding steps.”

Only by “boldly stepping away from each side’s entrenched positions” can the two sides reach a “mutually beneficial endpoint,” Kim said. He said he hoped that relations with the United States would improve like the ties between the two Koreas over the past year.

But if Washington continues to “misinterpret our people’s patience, and makes one-sided demands and continues down the path of sanctions and pressure on our republic,” Pyongyang would have no choice but to “defend our sovereignty” by seeking a “new path,” Kim said.

He did not elaborate on the meaning of a “new path.”

As for the reciprocations he wants from the United States, sanctions relief may be on the top of that list since Kim also said that he was willing to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex and resume tours by South Koreans to Mount Kumgang without “any preconditions.”

Both projects, as with any initiative that would generate money for the North’s regime, are currently banned under UN sanctions.

Pledges made by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to expand inter-Korean economic cooperation in their three summits held last year have failed to move much beyond symbolism due to the international blockade.

Perhaps as an appeal to the South in light of such delayed progress, Kim said that “if the North and South rely on a united strength, no sanction or pressure … can block our journey to open a path to national prosperity.”

But to build on the “miraculous change” that took place on the peninsula over the last year, Kim underscored that “practical steps” were necessary to relieve military tensions between the two Koreas as had been promised during the summits.

“Joint military exercises with foreign powers should no longer be allowed, and the inflow of foreign military strategic assets into the Korean Peninsula must be stopped,” Kim said, renewing the regime’s perennial calls for the cessation of joint drills between South Korea and the United States. Such actions are the “source of political tensions” on the peninsula, Kim argued.

“The North and South, and our entire nation should speed up our long striding marches towards fulfilling the inter-Korean agreements … and make this a historic year that brings a turning point in realizing the grand task of unification,” Kim said.

On Sunday, Kim sent Moon a New Year’s letter laden with similar language about increased cooperation between the two Koreas and more summits between the two leaders.

The two met three times in 2018 - more than any other leader before them - and produced agreements more ambitious than the outcomes of inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007. Kim found in Moon a more conciliatory partner than any other leader he has engaged with, but their numerous agreements - like pursuing a joint rail and road modernization project or a pledge to declare a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War - have led to few concrete results as denuclearization negotiations quickly stalled.

In his address, Kim called for multilateral negotiations between the relevant parties in the 1953 armistice agreement to “transition the current armistice to a peace treaty” in order to ensure the foundation of a permanent peace on the peninsula, the first time he has officially referred to such an agreement since he met Moon for the first time in the truce village of Panmunjom in April last year.

Kim also called the inter-Korean military agreement to gradually turn the demilitarized zone between the two countries into a peace zone a “de facto non-aggression pact,” echoing similar comments made by Moon and South Korean officials after the third summit in September in Pyongyang.

To his own people in the North, Kim’s message stressed the necessity of building a “self-reliant economy,” suggesting they should brace themselves for continued hardship as international sanctions continue to take their toll on the North’s primitive economy.

According to Statistics Korea, the South’s official statistics agency, the North’s economy shrunk by 3.5 percent in 2017 after some sanctions were first implemented ? the worst performance for the country since it was hit by a massive famine in the 1990s.

South Korea’s presidential office immediately welcomed Kim’s address on Tuesday, with Blue House Spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom saying it “contains a genuineness to improve inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations” in an official statement. “We hope Chairman Kim’s firm commitment has a positive effect on solving current issues on the Korean Peninsula over the new year.”

Moon’s own shorter New Year’s message on Tuesday contained a pledge to build an “irreversible peace” in Korea.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry on Tuesday welcomed Kim’s speech, saying it reflected the North’s commitment to seeking a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula in tandem with the South’s own goals.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]