Security and Foreign Policy

Kim Jong-Un Offers Opportunity and Caution in Annual New Year’s Address

On New Year’s Day, Kim Jong-Un donned a suit to deliver his annual address in which he committed to denuclearization. Andy Laub examines the implications of the North Korean leader’s statement.


It was one year ago when North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un shaped a year of unprecedented diplomacy in 2018 in his annual New Year’s Address by mentioning the North’s interest in the Olympics being held in PyeongChang, South Korea. Korea watchers around the world have long looked at the leader’s annual speech to try and read the tea leaves for what they can expect from North Korea for the upcoming year. Thus, with anticipation, Kim Jong-Un delivered his 2019 New Year’s Address for the first time ever wearing a western style suit in a live broadcast where he offered to meet with President Trump at “any time” to continue discussions concerning the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which appeared stalled by the end of 2018. Kim also said he would not make any new nuclear weapons: “The statements and agreements after the summit with the United States were that we are going toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and that is my resolute commitment…We will not make nuclear weapons and we will not proliferate nuclear weapons, and I have said this, and I will say this again now.” Kim also drew a line in the sand, warning of possible setbacks in his denuclearization agenda, noting “If the United States does not keep its promise in our international community and misinterprets our patience and intention and continues with the sanctions, then we have no choice for the sake of our national interest and peace of the Korean Peninsula but to come up with new initiatives and new measures.”

Kim Jong-Un seems to be both seeking leverage over the United States in any upcoming negotiations or summits. He has given himself breathing room to reverse on an engagement policy with the United States, should talks fail or he doesn’t like the direction they’re taking, so that he can blame the United States for stalled efforts on a diplomatic breakthrough. This is a known North Korean tactic where they spend time engaging, stalling for time, then do an about-face, closing off communication and returning to hostile rhetoric and threats. The Trump Administration, like previous administrations, has been firm about not lifting sanctions during negotiations as part of their “maximum pressure and maximum engagement” strategy. This is seen from the perspective of the United States as trying to keep the pressure on North Korea to stay at the negotiating table and retain leverage; however, in North Korea, this is seen as hostile American policy towards the DPRK that has crippled its economy. Thus, continued U.S and multilateral sanctions will continue to be a major sticking point in further negotiations; Kim Jong-Un will likely see how far he can push Trump to loosen sanctions.

Trump has been unpredictable in these relationships, as shown when Trump canceled joint military drills with South Korea in Singapore, even though Kim did not request this; further, Trump offered no advance warning to America’s ROK allies. Kim sees sanctions as a way for Trump to advance an America First-agenda in the region.

From Kim Jong-Un’s perspective, he has destroyed key nuclear test sites, has said he is willing to allow some inspectors in, and he has halted all nuclear and ballistic missile testing; Kim believes it’s time for the United States to reciprocate. In his address, Kim noted, “If the United States can show corresponding measures, the relationship between the two countries will, through many processes, accelerate for the better. But if the counterpart continues with its past habits, it won’t be good, but I hope they stop this.”

At this point, it is hard to see where a second summit would get both the United States and North Korea, given the apparent impasse on sanctions. President Trump will likely welcome a second summit, given the affection he has displayed towards Kim Jong-Un; he also would use this to distract from several of his domestic political woes back in Washington, such as the ongoing Mueller investigation and partial government shutdown over a border wall between the United States and Mexico. However, if such a summit were to take place, the Administration needs to outline a much more comprehensive long-term strategy, not just stage another photo-op. The Trump administration must begin to entertain the idea of phased sanctions relief in exchange for the North’s disarmament and work with the North Koreans to ensure such diplomatic processes can and will be carried out. Ambassador Chris Hill who oversaw the six party talks with North Korea during the Bush Administration tweeted, “We start 2019 where we started 2018. #NorthKorea has no interest in denuke on basis of Singapore, rather on more talks and more concessions including weakening US-ROK alliance, removal of US guarantees. We need serious policy not a marketing plan.” That’s exactly right. There needs to be a much broader focus on policy and process than what has been shown so far if any progress is going to be made.

The reception of this address was very different from an inter-Korean perspective. This was the first time the speech was broadcast live in South Korea; Kim Jong-Un beganby greeting his “fellow compatriots” in South Korea. He praised his three meetings in 2018 with South Korean President Moon-Jae In and expressed a willingness to reopenthe Kaesong industrial complex, an industrial park in North Korea near the border that permitted South Korean workers. (This complex was closed in 2013 following a chill in inter-Korean relations.) Kim also suggested restarting South Korean tours to Mount Kumgang on the North’s east coast “without any preconditions.” Furthermore, just one week ago the two Koreas held a groundbreaking ceremony for the start of a joint inter-Korean railroad. On these points of greater inter-Korean cooperation, Kim Jong-Un noted, “Cooperation and exchanges between the North and South must be expanded and develop in all areas in order to consolidate national reconciliation and unity, so that the entire nation can see the fruits of improving inter-Korean relations in practice.” Kim also emphasized Korean unification of the peninsula adding, “We must keep pushing in the fight towards unification by and for Koreans,” saying that DPRK would not let “foreign powers interfere” in the reunification process. That was intended as a response to Ambassador Hill’s tweet on a weakened US-ROK alliance.

Additionally, Kim was able to get Trump to concede military tests with South Korea without having to do anything in return. This shows that Kim is capable of weakening US-South Korean strategic cooperation, which benefits North Korea. Furthermore, in his meetings with President Moon, who is very pro-engagement, there have been some disagreements regarding the lifting of sanctions. South Korea’s continued diplomacy with North Korea will test the resolve of the US-ROK alliance. It is likely that inter-Korean relations will improve at a more rapid pace than U.S-DPRK relations.

Most of Kim’s speech was about the domestic economy of North Korea, thus his clear first priority is that of expanding the North’s economy. That is why sanctions are prioritized in his agenda. He will use this diplomatic opportunity to improve the DPRK’s economic health, which is vitally needed to lift North Korea’s 24 million people out of poverty and contribute to the state’s expanded role as a global power. The same issues are on the table in 2019. It is matter of seeing what can be delivered.

Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.

Photo Credit: New York Post

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

Have you signed up for our newsletter? Enter your e-mail below to sign up!

Leave a Reply