Kim Jong-un’s New Year address sends key message

By Li Kaisheng Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/4 19:43:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

As the UN Security Council approved new sanctions against North Korea in December and the world became deeply concerned about the Korean Peninsula, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had a U-turn in attitude. In his New Year's Day address, Kim wished success to South Korea in hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics and expressed his willingness to send a delegation. On Wednesday, North Korea reopened a long-closed communications channel with South Korea in Panmunjom.

Some suspect Kim is playing stalling tactics. Does he hope to break the increasingly harsh sanctions by improving relations with Seoul? Or is he just buying time for more nuclear tests? Kim said in his New Year's Day address that "the entire mainland of the US is within range of our nuclear weapons and the nuclear button is always on the desk of my office," leaving an impression that he is continuing to provoke the US and drive a wedge in the US-South Korea alliance.

However, I believe Kim indeed wants to ease the tension. This is not a makeshift tactic, but a new manifestation of North Korea's strategy in a new period.

Kim declared that he pursued "parallel development:" simultaneously carrying out economic development while building nuclear armed forces. Since he declared the "historic accomplishment" of nuclear power, the next emphasis is economic development. That needs a peaceful and friendly international environment. This is the starting point for Kim to turn to seeking reconciliation.

The "nuclear button," which seems to be a threat, is actually a deterrent. Kim stressed that "Pyongyang would not use nuclear weapons against any nation unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any hostile force with nuclear weapons." Many people may have overlooked these words. In fact, this is a rational calculation: North Korea's leaders build nuclear weapons for self-protection with no intention of destroying Washington. They just don't want to end up like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi.

The outside world still suspects that North Korea has technical problems to be resolved and needs to do more tests. That may be true. But for North Korea, claiming that its nuclear missiles can hit the US mainly has political significance. It just needs to form a powerful enough nuclear deterrence for South Korea and US forces stationed on the Korean Peninsula. More nuclear tests don't seem necessary at the moment.

The possibility of Pyongyang conducting further nuclear tests still exists, especially when tensions flare up again on the peninsula and North Korea decides to continue playing a cliff-edge game with other parties. But at present Kim seems ready to put aside his nuclear ambitions and focus his efforts on seeking peace and development.

Thus in his New Year address, Kim on the one hand criticized South Korea for no change in bilateral relations, and on the other demanded "North and South must work together to alleviate tensions." The upcoming Winter Olympics would be a good chance to improve North-South relations. However, the future situation in the peninsula will still be bumpy.

First, North Korea seeks an alleviation of tensions to offset the pressure of international sanctions or even make the international community give tacit consent to its nuclear weapons. South Korea aims to push North Korea to eventually abandon its nuclear weapons.

While both sides want to improve bilateral relations for the time being, their long-term goals run in opposite directions. Against this backdrop, even if they cooperate in the short term, there may be constant bickering that can easily backfire.

The international community distrusts North Korea and quite a few South Koreans harbor harsh views of North Korea. Despite the efforts of the Moon Jae-in administration to promote exchanges with Pyongyang, it is difficult to lift sanctions and give North Korea more economic benefits unless the latter abandons its nuclear program. If North Korea doesn't get what it wants seeking peace, it will likely return to the path of provocations with nuclear and missile tests.

Although Pyongyang emphasizes dialogue with Seoul alone, US influence cannot be ignored. It eventually requires talks between relevant sides including the US and North Korea to clinch peace treaties and normalize US-North Korea relations. If Washington doesn't fundamentally adjust its hostile policy toward Pyongyang, Seoul's efforts may come to naught.

In any event, peace on the peninsula is invaluable. All relevant parties should seize every opportunity to make compromise and concessions to gradually push North Korea's nuclear issue toward a peaceful settlement. Once the opportunity is missed and tensions in the peninsula escalate, the result may be a disaster for all.

The author is a research fellow at the institute of international relations, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.


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