Sitting in a leather chair, wearing a western-style suit, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his annual address to the nation January 1. He announced he was ready to meet U.S. President Donald Trump anytime to continue talks on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but warned Pyongyang may take a “new path” if U.S. sanctions and pressure against the country continue.
Evan Rees, Asia-Pacific analysts with Stratfor, noted the change in optics for Kim’s 2019 address.
“It was a lot more intimate. It was more presidential. It made him seem more like a normal leader,” said Rees.
“There was something for everyone in Kim’s speech,” added Bruce Klinger, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia with the Heritage Foundation, in an email to VOA.
There were “enough positive statements to affirm in some minds that the North Korean leader is a force for peace on the peninsula and that Washington must offer yet more concessions to maintain diplomatic momentum,” said Klinger.
“But as is characteristic of the North Korean regime,” he said, “Kim blamed others for the diplomatic impasse, imposed heavy conditions on his seemingly constructive offers, and threatened to ‘seek a new path to protect the sovereignty of the country and the nation's best interests.’ In short, Kim extended an olive branch, but with very sharp thorns.”
Rees called the “most important thing to take away” from this year’s address was Kim’s announcement that North Korea would “neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them.”
“The production of nuclear devices was in many ways the big takeaway from the speech last year,” Rees said, who called that commitment “an expression of the willingness to continue the [diplomatic] outreach” to move the process forward.
South Korea's presidential office said Kim’s speech reflected his wish for the further development of inter-Korean ties and better North Korea-United States relations.
“Chairman Kim's firm commitment is expected to have a positive effect on resolving the Korean Peninsula issue smoothly in the new year,” said Presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom.
However, Klinger notes this year’s address revisited several reoccurring themes.
Kim “reiterated Pyongyang’s lengthy list of demands – an end to all allied military exercises, a prohibition on any deployment of U.S. strategic weapons platforms to the peninsula as well as South Korean purchases of U.S. weapons, reduction of international sanctions, and a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice,” he wrote.
Furthermore, Klinger said, “North Korea did not offer any new denuclearization gestures, such as a data declaration of its nuclear and missile programs as the U.S. has demanded. More ominously, Kim signaled that Pyongyang was losing its patience on garnering benefits and issued a veiled threat of unspecified repercussions if Washington failed to comply with regime demands for ‘reciprocal gestures.’”
Rees's analysis coincides with Klinger’s in that if the U.S. doesn’t make concessions to North Korea, it “might have to shift back into it's more belligerent tone.”
It was a statement Rees called a “sort of dire warning that things can go another way.”
“But as you get into the actual brass tacks, and you move towards another Trump-Kim summit, there's gonna be a lot of pressure on U.S. officials to try to pin North Korea down and move them more towards the U.S. position. That's something North Korea has signaled it’s not willing to do,” he said.
Kim Jong Un’s address highlighted a positive message to his domestic audience, according to Kim Dong-yub, Director of Research at the Institute for Far East Studies at Kyungnam University.”
“He stressed the positive, hopeful future, and despite the limitations and sanctions, [Kim] tried to unite the people,” said Kim Dong-yub.
Peace was the “fundamental” message in this year’s address says Jung Dae-jin, a research professor with the Ajou Institute of Unification.
Kim Jong Un gave the current inter-Korean state of affairs positive marks, but attempted to use the improved relationship as a way to reduce the sanctions imposed on North Korea.
“Under the U.S. sanctions, it is not possible to resume operations at Kaesong,” said Jung, referring to the jointly operated industrial complex that’s been shuttered since 2016 under the previous Park Geun-hye administration.
During his New Year’s Day address, the North Korean leader spent the majority of his time addressing the economy, calling for economic expansion.
Jung theorizes North Korea may ask the United States to lift the sanctions on the industrial complex as part of the requisite “corresponding actions” Pyongyang is looking for Washington to move denuclearization talks forward and continue the economic prospects for the peninsula promoted through the three inter-Korean summits in 2018.
“Kim has placed North Korea on the moral high ground and placed both the blame and the onus for future steps on Washington’s doorstep,” wrote Klinger, “The message to Trump is to come to another summit if he wants to salvage his claimed denuclearization success, but be prepared to deal.”
Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.