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Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
Among other things, it was one of the first times Kim Jong Un has spoken in such length since February’s failed summit in Hanoi, it was clearly a modified version of the new year’s address four months ago, and it served as an open message to the president Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Donald Trump of the U.S. about where diplomacy stands to go from here.
In the 47-minute speech, the North Korean leader clarified many questions. For example, he confirmed that he wishes to continue his focus on economic development.
He stressed that would meet with President Donald Trump once again and he would wait for negotiations with the U.S. to bear fruit until the end of this year. He also said he would continue dialogue with South Korea.
Despite this, the speech also raised some new questions.
“Not cling to the sanctions relief”: then what?
Kim Jong Un expressed disappointment about the issue of sanctions relief, saying “what I feel now is if there will be any need to keep an attachment to the summit with the U.S. just because of the issue of sanctions relief.”
He reiterated the resentment one minute later: “As I told you just before, I would not cling to such a lousy issue like sanctions relief from the hostile forces anymore and would open a new way of revival with our strength.”
This is important, and implies a big shift in Pyongyang’s negotiation strategy with the U.S. — sanctions relief, after all, has long been a major part of the reciprocal measures that the DPRK has asked the U.S. to provide in exchange for steps towards denuclearization.
If he does not stick to the sanctions relief, he might be shifting objectives: possible candidates for the replacement could be a proposal for partial disarmament or a denuclearized zone, as the North suggested following the Hanoi summit.
Shared methodology: return to a bottom-up strategy?
Chairman Kim also highlighted the importance of the preparation process when he showed his willingness to hold a third summit with President Trump.
“If the U.S. adopts a correct posture and comes forward for the third DPRK-U.S. summit with a certain methodology that can be shared with us, we can think of holding one more round of talks.”
This remark suggested that, in future, his preparatory negotiation team might get more flexibility on the issue of the denuclearization.
It has been widely reported that North Korean negotiation teams did not have the authority to discuss denuclearization, particularly at facilities outside Yongbyon, during preparatory talks.
The real negotiations, then, happened only when the two leaders met, but they were not able to get an agreement because there was no shared methodology.
At future talks, this shared methodology will need to be found in working-level negotiations between the two sides. If working-level negotiations between the North and the U.S. resume, we might see a new North Korean team with more flexibility to deal with the nuclear issue.
“Mediator” insulted: How will Moon respond?
Chairman Kim also used his speech to attack South Korea, condemning President Moon Jae-in for his attempts to act as a mediator between the North and the U.S.
“The South Korean authorities should not act an officious ‘mediator’ and ‘booster’ that adopt a vacillating stand depending on the trend and engage themselves in an array of visits, but be a party advocating the interests of the nation with its own spirit and voice, being part of the nation,” he said.
These remarks, especially the word ‘officious,’ are particularly insulting in Korean. The call to be part of the nation, too, suggests that North Korea has legitimacy as the Korean people’s nation and South Korea does not, because it is occupied by the imperialist U.S.
Chairman Kim’s insult gives a dilemma to President Moon on whether he should change his objective of asking as a “mediator and booster.” For one, the South Korea President it seems that Moon should stop referring to himself as a “mediator” — it provokes an unnecessary image of a third party and doubtful broker to the North as well as the U.S.
However, the case of the word ‘booster’ or ‘facilitator’ is different — and a more accurate reflection of what Moon hopes to achieve.
“Independence” emphasized: what about U.S. troops?
In his message directed at the people of North Korea, Chairman Kim said the revolutionary line of independence is one of the most important guidelines to follow.
It is quite common to see this point raised by the North Koreans, and to see the leader take a hardline stance against U.S. imperialism.
However, an emphasis on independence will likely cause a dilemma for Chairman Kim should negotiations with the U.S. on denuclearization succeed.
North Korean calls for independence typically link to calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula.
Reiterating this demand could, then, put a constraint on Kim to demand the withdrawal of American soldiers during negotiations with the U.S., which could destroy prospects for sanctions relief and the removal of security concerns.
It is possible, of course, for North Korea to target its propaganda only at its citizens, not at outside audiences. When negotiations resume, we will see whether the message was intended for domestic or a foreign audience.
No mention of the five-year strategy: shifting priorities?
Chairman Kim, notably, did not say anything about the five-year strategy for the national economic development in the speech.
This is unusual: the plan has been a number one priority for North Korea since it was announced in May 2016, and he reiterated its importance again in the new year address four months ago.
The Supreme People’s Assembly would be the ideal forum for the leader to remind the people of his determination to accomplish the strategy. Skipping the topic, then, hints at a possible change in the plan.
One possible scenario could be that it is being abandoned: amid economic sanctions and other the limitations of the small-scale socialist economy, prospects for accomplishing its objectives may be worsening.
Another possibility could be that it is under a policy review — because of the stalemate in nuclear negotiations with the U.S., the North may be readjusting the timetable.
So, he skipped it for now, but he may bring it up again in the near future.
Kim dropping the strategy would be a bad sign: nuclear negotiations were contingent on the view that the DPRK would be interesting in making concessions in return for economic benefits.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA