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Analysts say speech shows Kim wants to keep nukes

Jan 03,2019
Analysts say that regardless of the conciliatory messages in North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address on Tuesday, he intends to keep his nukes despite pressure from the United States.

Kim’s New Year’s speech this year was probably the most anticipated among all the addresses delivered by the North Korean leader since 2013. Pyongyang’s nuclear talks with Washington have been stalled for months and have subsequently blocked inter-Korean economic initiatives from moving forward.

By reiterating his stated commitment to complete denuclearization, the speech appears to have achieved its primary purpose, as it elicited a positive response from U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday.

Others weren’t so optimistic.

Thae Yong-ho, one of the highest-ranking North Korean defectors in the South, told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday that Kim’s speech had two strategic purposes. These are to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States in regards to economic cooperation with the North, and to complicate the verification process of North Korea’s denuclearization by initiating multilateral negotiations over a formal peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War.

“If summarized in a single sentence, Kim Jong-un’s address shows he wants to narrow down the scope of the nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea to arms reduction and push off international sanctions, while retaining the status of a nuclear-armed country,” Thae said.

According to Thae, who used to be North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, the “new path” Kim mentioned the North would take if the United States does not respond with corresponding measures to its denuclearization efforts would be a return to its old pattern of making nuclear provocations. In the speech, Kim said the North would not “make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them.” Thae said “a new path” would mean reneging on this pledge.

Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University, said Kim’s speech “aims to erode international resolve that North Korea must choose between nuclear weapons and economic development.” The “implicit threat” contained in the address, Easley said, means that “if sanctions relief is not forthcoming, the DPRK [North Korea’s formal name] will be forced to return to military confrontation.”

In a news analysis of the speech on Wednesday, the New York Times’ national security correspondent David Sanger said the speech posed a question to Trump as to whether he should accept the North as a nuclear-armed state with no further development on its nuclear arsenal lest Kim withdraw from the talks altogether by taking this “new path.”

In South Korea, Kim’s proposal to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex and restart tours by South Koreans to Mount Kumgang on the North’s eastern coast gained much attention. Many analysts, however, say this would increase the burden on the South Korean government as it seeks economic cooperation with the North while sanctions remain firmly in place. In a conference on Wednesday hosted by Ewha Womans University and the Korean Sharing Movement, a nonprofit aid organization, a group of South Korean academics specializing in the North analyzed the speech and its implications.

In order to avoid the sanctions issue, the South and North could continue joint efforts to reduce military tensions to build on the inter-Korean military agreement Kim referred to as a “de facto nonaggression pact” in the speech, an analysis report from the conference read. This could ignite domestic controversy in the South and complicate Seoul’s ties to Washington. Kim mentioned “a capacity for generating tidal, wind and atomic power,” and Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon on Tuesday night said this matter could factor into the denuclearization negotiations going forward.

The common denominator in nearly all views of Kim’s speech is that it has effectively lobbed the ball into Washington’s court.

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