By HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer
SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un used his New Year’s address Monday to extend an olive branch to South Korea even as he touted Pyongyang’s nuclear advances in a warning to the U.S., aiming to widen a rift between allies already at odds over how to deal with the regime.
Nuclear progress, economic setbacks
The speech made clear that Pyongyang intends to continue its nuclear weapons program. Kim boasted of “perfecting the national nuclear forces,” citing the successful test Nov. 29 of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range potentially extending across the continental U.S. The North will work to “mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles,” to “give a spur to the efforts for deploying them for action,” he said.
The North Korean leader stressed that he is prepared to launch a strike against America at any time, asserting that “the nuclear button is on my office desk.” By singling out the U.S. for such threats, Kim looks to send a warning to Seoul and Washington, which have buttressed the pressure against his regime with the threat of military force.
But Kim also suggested that he has no interest in a full-scale conflict, saying his country will not use nuclear weapons unless “hostile forces of aggression violate its sovereignty and interests.”
The speech also hinted at the North’s struggles under international sanctions, including tightened restrictions on oil supplies. “A breakthrough should be made in re-energizing the overall economic front this year,” the third year of North Korea’s current five-year economic development plan, Kim said.
Should Kim’s policy of parallel nuclear and economic development founder, his grip on the country could weaken. The New Year’s address cited raising the standard of living as a “central task facing socialist economic construction this year” and outlined issues to be tackled by individual industrial sectors.
His speech also signaled interest in dialogue with the South. “We will open our doors to anyone from South Korea, including the ruling party and opposition parties, organizations and individual personages of all backgrounds, for dialogue, contact and travel, if they sincerely wish national concord and unity,” Kim said.
The North Korean leader specifically sought to use next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, as an opening for talks.
“We earnestly wish the Olympic Games a success,” he said, calling for North and South Korean authorities to meet with an eye toward letting the North send athletes to the event. This aligns with South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s hope to make the games an opportunity to work toward reconciliation and easing tensions on the peninsula.
This tactic seems aimed at driving a wedge between South Korea and its more hard-line partners, Japan and the U.S. Kim urged Moon’s government to halt joint military exercises with Washington and “refrain from any acts of bringing in nuclear armaments and aggressive forces” from the U.S. “When the North and the South are determined, they can surely prevent the outbreak of war and ease tension on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
Moon urged swift steps Tuesday to prepare for talks. Seoul proposed holding a bilateral meeting Jan. 9.
Between a rock and a hard place
But the South Korean leader may face difficult choices as he seeks rapprochement with Pyongyang in the face of the uncompromising approach pursued by Washington and Tokyo.
The U.S. has indicated it will consider a request by Moon to postpone joint military drills until after the Olympics and the Paralympics in March, but has no intention of suspending them. Washington still considers denuclearization a prerequisite for talks with North Korea.
Asked by reporters Sunday night local time about Kim’s remarks, U.S. President Donald Trump said simply, “We’ll see.” But he elaborated Tuesday morning on Twitter, declaring that “sanctions and ‘other’ pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea.”
“Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time,” he wrote, referring to Kim. “Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not — we will see!”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters Tuesday that the “crux” of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue involves the “contradiction” between North Korea and the U.S. Beijing encourages both sides to make a “concrete effort to bring the issue back to the right track of settlement through dialogue and consultation,” Geng said.