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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Kim Jong Un delivered his much-anticipated New Year Address for 2019 early Tuesday morning to fellow North Koreans tuning in to hear how the country’s strategy and policy might shift in the coming year.
But as the DPRK finds itself in the midst of stalled negotiations with the U.S. and surprisingly constant progress in improving relations with South Korea, experts stationed outside the North also tuned in seeking signs of how things may play out on the international stage in 2019.
In his speech, Kim made his first explicit request for a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, and while criticizing sanctions and cautiously signaling impatience with the stalled talks, he also largely avoided the more harsh rhetoric of some state media commentaries as of late.
Kim also offered primarily kind words for his Korean neighbors to the south, and focused heavily on the successes of his summits with not only Trump and President Moon, but also the leaders of socialist allies like China and Cuba.
Rounded out with a healthy helping of economic talk and boasts of the country’s ideology of self-reliance, the speech was mostly what observers expected.
But to find out the implications of Tuesday’s speech as well as the significance of Kim’s choice of words and, indeed, choice of outfit and setting of the speech, we turn to the experts.
The following North Korea watchers responded in time for our deadline:
Andray Abrahamian: I don’t think there were any policy bombshells: this isn’t Anwar Sadat saying he’d go to Israel. It was Kim Jong Un re-iterating priorities.
The New Year’s pronouncements really reflect policy lines that develop in the months beforehand then get developed in more detail for the people of North Korea in the weeks afterwards as everyone studies the political priorities for the year.
Chris Green: The speech contained no policy bombshells in the diplomatic realm, but they almost never do. It did, however, give a holistic appraisal of North Korea’s view of the current state of play after a year of diplomacy with South Korea and the U.S.
By reaffirming the need for both sanctions relief and an end-of-war declaration, rather than focusing on one or the other, Kim also brought North Korea’s demands into dialogue.
Hoo Chiew Ping: The biggest bombshell to me, though not surprising, includes how Kim Jong Un characterized progress in inter-Korean relations as “de facto irreversible.” Also, the insistence on sanctions relief implies that U.S. refusal to comply with this demand would compel the DPRK to forego negotiations with the U.S. and adopt another strategy to ensure state survival.
Stephan Haggard: Since assuming office, Kim Jong Un’s commitment to economic reform has largely been implicit: simply allowing the emergent market economy running room.
The speech appears to contain a number of buzzwords signaling a lighter central government touch: light industry, the role of the cabinet, invigorating enterprise production. Could this be the year of de jure—as opposed to de facto—reforms?
David Kim: Kim Jong Un stated his commitment to cap his nuclear weapons program and not to spread them. This should be seen as a forward step. If we are going to move towards eventual disarmament, we need to begin with capping their existing arsenal.
Still, we did not hear a commitment to cap their nuclear technology or fissile material, and as we’ve seen post-Singapore, this has been a huge bone of contention within the disarmament community. Also, he declared that he wants an end-of-war declaration, which indicates his intent to engage in multilateral diplomacy with Xi and Putin, hopefully this year.
Duyeon Kim: There were no policy bombshells. Kim Jong Un hit all the usual themes: domestic policy and work plan, message to South Korea, and message to the United States.
This year, the focus is again on self-reliant national development and economic prosperity, reunification, and a Korean Peninsula peace zone, which includes North Korea’s definition of denuclearization.
Soo Kim: Broadly speaking, there were no earth-shattering proclamations from Kim this year. But if I had to point out one bit that merits attention (besides references to denuclearization, Washington, and inter-Korean cooperation), in light of the broader context of inter-Korean cooperation and implications on the U.S.-ROK alliance: Kim stresses the need for the DPRK to strengthen its national defense capabilities at the global level to guarantee peace on the peninsula.
Similarly, he calls for an end to (Seoul’s) joint exercises with foreign powers and bringing in foreign military assets. Ponder this in the context of the various implementation steps of the inter-Korean military agreement and the current friction between Washington and Seoul over burden-sharing and other defense issues.
Mintaro Oba: I wouldn’t characterize anything in the speech as a bombshell. The language about not producing more nuclear weapons will raise eyebrows, but I view this more as a tactical gambit to raise the stakes and put pressure on Washington.
Since North Korea has not laid out the specific conditions under which this would take effect, it would be hard to hold Pyongyang to this.
Andray Abrahamian: The “economy first” line that Kim articulated last spring is still very much in effect and the aspects of the speech that focused on the international environment very much reflect that the key fetters for economic growth rest on the impasse between the United States and the DPRK on the nuclear issue. There needs to be a breakthrough there before DPRK-ROK ties deepen and other international actors get involved.
He also implicitly acknowledged another key constraint on economic growth – poor domestic management practices. Kim has done much to improve economic practices, but clearly recognizes there is a lot more to be done to realize a more efficient, modern economy.
Chris Green: The history of 2019 is, as ever, contingent. Today’s speech had carrots for the U.S. and South Korea, and one thinly veiled stick. There is no guarantee whatsoever that things will work out as North Korea intends, of course, but if 2019 were to turn out to be the year in which a productive second U.S.-DPRK summit took place, sanctions relief was given, the Kaesong Industrial Complex reopened and an end-of-war declaration was signed, then it would be painted as a moment of great victory for the North Korean government’s strategic planning.
That would have both upsides and downsides for the rest of us, given that the tensions of 2017 were as much a part of the North Korean government’s strategic planning as the pivot to dialogue of 2018!
Hoo Chiew Ping: 2019 will be the year of continuing diplomacy and rapid economic development. As U.S.-DPRK negotiation may fall apart, inter-Korean engagement will continue, and Kim Jong Un is determined to establish a new status quo on the Korean peninsula, by institutionalizing a new military presence along the DMZ and enhancing DPRK economic industrialization according to the regime’s model (and not that of Trump’s or the international community’s expectations).
Stephan Haggard: I don’t see any fundamental shifts in stance. The game is largely the same: dangle the benefits of a second summit, work the South Koreans to see if they can provide material benefits or deliver Trump, while counting on Beijing to continue its effective patronage role.
The hidden theme could well be the effective relaxation of sanctions as Russia plays spoiler and other countries tire of the effort.
David Kim: 2019 will be a year of doubling down on diplomatic efforts with the U.S., S. Korea, and other multilateral partners (Russia, China, Vietnam etc.) in an effort to ease sanctions and keep Kim Jong Un in the good-graces of the international community.
Kim Jong Un did make clear that the U.S. has to play ball and offer concessions, but if the Trump Administration continues its hard-line rhetoric of unilateral disarmament, 2019 may be the year where the rubber meets the road as Trump may not be able to continue touting progress in the face of mounting evidence against it.
As the economy takes a potential dip, Democrats in the U.S. take control of the House, and presidential contenders from both sides mount their presidential campaigns, Trump will face increasing criticism and pressure from both sides to cite progress on North Korean denuclearization.
Domestically, Kim will focus his efforts to continue the “socialist economic construction” through the five-year economic plan as mentioned at the 3rd plenary of the Workers’ Party in April 2018. He further solidified that in today’s message.
Duyeon Kim: Modernization, sophistication, and normalcy. Domestically, Kim Jong Un ordered his people to modernize the country on all fronts – economy, technology, welfare, culture, and defense to their “best levels” in line with self-reliance and doing them “the North Korean way.”
Nationally, it’s to continue the North’s ‘revolution’ of uniting the two Koreas and, together as “one people,” to take peace and unification into their own hands, fending off big foreign meddlers.
He’s saying that he has a bigger goal in mind that transcends the United States – reunification under North Korean terms. He acted like the leader of all the Korean peoples in the way he addressed his North Korean comrades, South Koreans, and Koreans around the world.
Internationally, it’s to strengthen relations with other socialist states and put the past behind Pyongyang and Washington and work towards a new relationship. But new relations with the U.S. are conditional, dependent on corresponding actions.
Soo Kim: Inter-Korean cohesion and feet-planting in nuclear talks with Washington until one side caves. Gravity tends to work in the favor of Kim’s heft, so we can rule out Pyongyang making significant, ingenuous gestures toward enduring peace and denuclearization.
Mintaro Oba: Keeping in mind that anything can happen, right now it looks like we’re headed for more of the same in 2019. North Korea continues to operate from a position of strength, having gotten its nuclear and missile programs to an advanced state and securing the backing of China and Russia for its approach.
The speech suggests it will likely continue to put pressure on Washington and Seoul without raising tensions so far that it loses the advantages it gains from the current process, like weakening sanctions enforcement and high-level diplomacy with all of the key regional players.
Meanwhile, the United States also shows no signs of changing its signature approach of constraining itself by inflating expectations and refusing to consider any sanctions relief until denuclearization. Frustration will grow, but neither party has the right incentives to abandon the diplomatic process wholesale – yet.
Andray Abrahamian: If there were no policy bombshells, there were at least some interesting symbolic components to the speech. His attire and manner reflected more western ways of addressing audiences, designed I think to appear approachable and reasonable to viewers abroad. He was also framed by huge portraits of his father and grandfather, highlighting his familial ties. This is primarily for local consumption.
It is also significant that the whole speech was shown in South Korea. This is perhaps a reciprocal trust-building measure following Moon Jae-in’s speech in front of hundreds of thousands of Pyongyangites at the May Day Stadium in September, which was not broadcast. This makes me think Moon will give a speech that is televised (or partly broadcast) on KCTV at some point in 2019.
Chris Green: With grand paintings of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at work in the background, the speech was meant as a visual representation of the legitimacy – and sincerity – of Kim family rule over North Korea for 70 years.
Kim’s other surroundings – floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, leather sofas, oak desks – projected the longevity, gravitas and (importantly for the domestic audience) inevitability of Workers’ Party institutions.
Stephan Haggard: It is hard to avoid the “fireside chat” parallel: the projection of a homey, comforting image of the leader.
Perhaps the most significant mistake analysts make of such regimes is their ability to build and sustain popular support.
David Kim: I tweeted that it was almost “Oval Office-esque.” It sparked the warmth and ambiance similar to that of of a U.S. presidential greeting from the Resolute desk.
I think he was ultimately trying to manage his image as a statesman. He came across polished and in control. This was further evidenced by the absence of his top officials.
Duyeon Kim: Kim Jong Un’s overarching message is: confident, normal, and modern peace-loving leader and country. He’s trying to show the world that he and North Korea are up to international standards and no longer a backward, hermit kingdom.
He’s wearing a suit and tie, looking into the camera with multiple camera angles on him, and sitting comfortably in a luxurious, leather executive chair in his study, whose setting interestingly resembles the feel of the Singapore summit backdrop.
Soo Kim: At first blush, Kim plodding into the carpeted library (sister Kim Yo Jong grinning as she escorts him) – walls and mantle adorned with images of grandfather and father Kims, sitting in the tufted chair, speech in hand – lends the impression consistent with his efforts to appear relatable, modern, and ordinary.
Further, this new presentation format is a visual representation of Kim’s comfort level with power and authority as a relatively young leader.
This “relaxed” setting stands in marked contrast to Kim’s stern tone with Washington in his speech. Striking to me, that Kim’s chair was situated between the paintings of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il – continuity of the Kim dynasty and signal to the rest of the world that the regime will persist in its influence-resistant, defiant ways. The fireside chat setting belies – perhaps even blunts – Kim’s sober message to the U.S. in the midst of scuttled negotiations between the two countries.
Mintaro Oba: It’s always hard to speculate about optics. Perhaps Kim is trying to project a statesmanlike image, to suggest that North Korea is in the hands of an adept and hard-working leader who also empathizes with the people.
He may also be trying to center the image of North Korean leadership around himself instead of the broader party.
Andray Abrahamian: If there is anything approaching a bombshell, it is this statement. This contradicts what Kim said last year: that testing of these systems had finished and the focus would be on mass production. Here he is saying, “we don’t need to produce any more.” This can be read as confidence, that strategically they feel their deterrent capability is sufficient. Second, this further puts pressure on the United States to offer some concessions, as this will read in Seoul and elsewhere as a leader who is taking reasonable steps towards peace on the Korean peninsula. It is saying, “look, we’ve stopped testing, we’ve dismantled some key sites, we’re happy to stop manufacturing…what have you done?”
Skeptics will say that there is no proof they have ceased or intend to cease manufacturing weapons. But with some sort of agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, perhaps we could actually find out. Chairman Kim’s speech also contained a vague warning – that if things fall apart with the United States, North Korea could return to a more militaristic path.
Chris Green: I wouldn’t call it an overture or a policy shift; but it was a useful clarification of the state of play. Kim defined North Korea’s side of the freeze that has been in place since early 2018: no production, testing, use or proliferation of nuclear weapons.
This ostensibly affirms that North Korea is not producing new devices, though it may or may not actually be the case. The New Year’s address is a piece of political theater and messaging, not a description of reality, and certainly not a verified fact.
Stephan Haggard: Poking Trump is a mistake. Why bother when you have achieved a nuclear capability that provides a deterrent?
Perhaps Kim Jong Un would be better off with an explicit agreement, but maintaining a nuclear capability in the interim is not a bad place to sit.
David Kim: Again, I think real denuclearization efforts with the DPRK has to start with capping their existing weapons programs, including their delivery systems and production material.
Duyeon Kim: Neither. He’s basically acting like a full-fledged nuclear power without having to brag about it overtly anymore. As expected, he didn’t rock the boat, clearly being mindful of the diplomatic process with Washington and didn’t brag about his nuclear might.
But he also sent an uncomfortable message to Seoul to stop military exercises with Washington and halt the deployment of U.S. military assets to the Peninsula.
Soo Kim: No shift in North Korea’s position on denuclearization. Kim through the speech reiterated his resolute position on the nuclear issue.
If the U.S. persists in its pressure campaign and sanctions, Kim will – “reluctantly” – go down a new path (unspecified). But of course, Kim is prepared “anytime” to “sit face-to-face” again with President Trump.
Ankit Panda: Kim’s overt mention of a production cap on nuclear weapons is notable and the only aspect of North Korean nuclear weapons policy that is new in this year’s address. Last year, on April 20, he committed to a testing freeze and little more.
2017 was the year of North Korean qualitative nuclear attainment, with a thermonuclear device tested as well as two different intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. 2018 then became the year of quantitative attainment, with Kim using the New Year’s Day address last year to order the mass production of missiles and warheads. In 2019, Kim is now happy to offer up a production cap, but perhaps only as long as U.S.-North Korea diplomacy remains on track.
If the process is derailed, we might expect all bets to be off—including the caps on production and on testing. It’s important to note here too that a production cap on nuclear weapons does not extend to the accrual of fissile material; Kim has not committed to cease enriching uranium or producing plutonium.
Mintaro Oba: I can see a couple of possibilities here. First, it could be that Kim wants to reinforce that North Korea is operating from a position of strength and no longer needs to produce nuclear weapons. Or second, North Korea wants to put more pressure on the United States to reciprocate with sanctions relief by offering something tantalizing.
Since Washington is unlikely to bend, North Korea can now say it offered to stop producing nuclear weapons, but the United States wouldn’t offer anything in return. I view the second possibility as the most likely, but these are not mutually exclusive.
Chris Green: We are in more or less the same position we were in yesterday. This is political rhetoric, after all. Kim transmitted North Korea’s desire to make progress with both South Korea and the U.S., and put pressure on the U.S. not to obstruct the evolution of inter-Korean relations.
North Korea is in a reasonably strong position politically, but hasn’t achieved many concrete results yet. Kim suggested that North Korea wants those results to come in 2019, but didn’t say much to suggest that Pyongyang is ready to shift its own position in order to make it happen.
Hoo Chiew Ping: The New Year speech’s main message to the U.S. is clear: the DPRK has done its part to enable the talks to move forward. Not having any nuclear test is convenient for the DPRK, buying time and increasing the bargaining leverage.
The urge to nail down the details by having the second summit with Trump aims at bypassing the obstacles of the high-level talks – security assurance to the DPRK through removing U.S. assets in South Korea and the lifting of core sanctions (especially on dual-use technology and equipment).
Trump may overrule the concerns of the U.S. negotiation team by strong-arming the deal, which will cause friction in U.S.-ROK military alliance.
Stephan Haggard: Nothing has really changed. It is increasingly clear that Trump’s interest in North Korea has waned. As long as the issue is out of the headlines, because of the absence of tests, there is no reason to bring it up.
What I call the “Pompeo process” might plug along, but the U.S. has not openly revealed what it is willing to pay for interim steps. Kim Jong Un no doubt would prefer a summit because he came out of the last one so well.
On the other hand, we still have no definitive clues as to whether Kim sees a summit as a path to endless stalling or the chance to reach a comprehensive settlement. The good money is on the former, but the latter still cannot be ruled out entirely. I continue to believe that Kim Jong Un cannot ultimately achieve his economic objectives without a formal rapprochement of some sort. But the regime has lived with second-best for some time, and is masterful in its capacity to evade and adjust to sanctions.
David Kim: No, I don’t think it’s a realignment. The speech made clear what the U.S. must NOT do if it wants to keep North Korea in its orbit: keep asking for unilateral disarmament without “corresponding measures” and sanctions reduction.
The devil is in the details since North Korea thinks it has done a lot to offer such concessions (Sohae, Punggye-ri, POW/MIAs, offer of Yongbyon closure) with little in return. The U.S., on the other hand, is split between Trump, who continues to cite progress, and his officials, who continue to cite otherwise.
I will note that Kim Jong Un asked for efforts to denuclearize the “Korean peninsula” and the ceasing of U.S.-ROK joint exercises, which is significant since it’s aimed at prohibiting U.S. strategic forces on the peninsula (against ROK domestic opposition), and it plays into Trump’s wish to reduce U.S. posture and troop numbers in the South.
2019 will be a year where Trump will have to face the facts and make decisions. Hopefully this will begin with his next summit.
Duyeon Kim: We are still in the same position as last year, and Kim Jong Un has put the ball in Washington’s court. He’s continued his peace offensive to Washington, that he’s ready to meet Trump again any time and that he’s ready to work towards a new relationship. But he still sent a very firm word of caution that if Washington doesn’t keep its Singapore promise and continues with sanctions, then he will go his separate way. He’s exuding confidence that his country isn’t hung up over the U.S., that they can still prosper without Washington, and that his bigger vision is a unified Korea under North Korean terms if things don’t work out with Washington.
Soo Kim: The speech marks a continuation of Pyongyang’s 2018 diplomacy with Washington and Seoul. To Washington, Kim presses on the North’s unwavering position on “complete denuclearization” and improving bilateral relations. The prospect of a second U.S.-DPRK summit is dangled before the U.S. audience; yet Kim threatens to reluctantly “look for a new path to establish peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula” should the U.S. fail to keep its promise and continue to make demands and pressure the regime.
By contrast, Kim continues to pat South Korea on the back for its efforts to spur inter-Korean cooperation and exchanges. A “very pleased” Kim looks forward to advancing inter-Korean relations and moving toward a peace regime.
Ankit Panda: Regarding a realignment, I’d say that we haven’t moved anywhere from where things have been since the June 12 summit. Kim has reiterated a fundamental North Korean message that has been carried in multiple KCNA commentaries and Foreign Ministry statements since the summit: We made moves toward denuclearization in good faith and now it is the United States’ turn to offer corresponding measures.
That was the core message reiterated by Kim today. His reference to his limited patience is notable as it suggests that we’re likely to see a breaking point in 2019 should the United States fail to deliver on said measures.
Mintaro Oba: We remain at an impasse, but I think the speech shows that Kim is treading carefully and still has a stake in the current diplomatic process, even if the United States remains completely inflexible.
After all, he has been able to bring the great powers to the table, increase his diplomatic options, and weaken the pressure campaign without making major concessions on nuclear issues. He was savvy in the way he put pressure on Washington and Seoul, but he did not take on a particularly aggressive tone.
Edited by Oliver Hotham