In the most anticipated speech of his career today, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un told hundreds of cadre from the Workers’ Party of Korea to prepare for a long-term standoff with the United States over its drive to “seek its own political and diplomatic interests” in Korea while “wasting time away under the signboard of dialogue and negotiations.”
But to the obvious surprise of many U.S. experts, Kim hedged on making any move that would cross a red line for the Trump administration or the Pentagon. Instead, he left the door open for further negotiations over peace and denuclearization – but only if the United States “rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK” and helps build “a lasting and durable peace-keeping mechanism” on the peninsula.
In some ways, Kim’s remarks restated the regime’s long-standing policy on talking to Washington, with an extra dose of determination to withstand the withering U.S. and UN sanctions that have crippled Kim’s attempts to remake North Korea’s economy and stifled any moves towards inter-Korean reconciliation over the last two years. “The DPRK-U.S. stand-off which has lasted century after century has now been compressed to clear stand-off between self-reliance and sanctions,” he said.
If that situation continues, Kim declared, the “long confrontation” with the U.S. might include the introduction “in the near future” of a “new strategic weapon” that he declined to describe (apart from being capable of “shocking actual action.”) Moreover, he would show his new hand by ending the halt he declared in 2018 to further development of nuclear weapons and the “test-fire” of long-range ICBMs capable of hitting the United States. “There is no ground for us to get unilaterally bound to that commitment any longer,” he said.
To make the case for ending the moratorium, Kim pointed to the “big and small” military drills carried out by the U.S. military in and around Korea since the talks began in 2018, and its introduction of “ultra-modern warfare equipment” from the United States into South Korea. As he spoke, a fleet of U.S. spy planes, based primarily in nearby Okinawa and carrying the most sophisticated surveillance equipment in the world, combed Korean skies looking for any signs of new tests that would violate the moratorium.
Kim’s report to a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party – often described as the DPRK’s highest decision-making body – took place after weeks of often frenzied speculation by the US media and North Korea experts about the “Christmas Surprise” that North Korean officials had promised if the Trump administration didn’t offer a more constructive proposal for relaxing sanctions and scaling down the confrontation. A week before Christmas, the top U.S. Air Force General in the Pacific boldly predicted the North’s imminent test-firing of a “long-range ballistic missile.”
That seemed to release the floodgates for a global guessing game. The degree of tension was apparent two days into the Christmas “surprise,” when Japan’s NHK mistakenly broadcast a false dispatch that the North had indeed tested a new missile. Immediately, and before even confirming the story, leading U.S. analysts began speculating about the possible size and distance of the weapon. After an embarrassed NHK pulled the story, the analysts quickly deleted their tweets, but not before making conjectures that only added to the sense of foreboding.
Among those pulling their tweets was Ankit Panda, an arms control analyst at the Federation of American Scientists who has made a name for himself with his detailed knowledge of North Korean missile technology. Writing for the Daily Beast, which is well-known for its ultra-hawkish coverage of North Korea, Panda called Kim’s New Year report “the best indication from Pyongyang that the door on this chapter of rapprochement [with the United States] is shut,” and predicted “a year that will likely include several missile tests and other demonstrations of military capability” from the DPRK.
In its coverage, the Washington Post, too, focused primarily on Kim’s threats to resume testing, but gave space to Duyeon Kim of the International Crisis Group to caution that Kim had “still left the door open to diplomacy.” The New York Times took a similar approach, noting that Kim had “moderated” his message by not “explicitly” saying he was ending his moratorium or terminating negotiations. But it simultaneously ran an op-ed from longtime North Korea critic Nicholas Eberstadt declaring that Kim had “just restarted his dance of death with America.”
The problem with such coverage – and the speculation that preceded it – is that it neglects to analyze the larger picture, especially the “hostile policy” that Kim and the DPRK claim is driving their nuclear weapons development and preventing the two sides from ending “century after century” of conflict.
If President Trump, his advisers and the many North Korea “experts” in Washington and New York really want to head off the “new way” Kim just warned about, they should start applying their considerable analytical skills to exploring those aspects of U.S. policy that have driven North Korea into a corner where all Kim sees is US “maneuvers to completely strangle and stifle the DPRK.”
That list should include the rigid U.S. stand on sanctions, America’s formidable military alliance with high-tech South Korea and Japan, and its forward-basing of nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia (which is likely to expand in the wake of Trump’s cancellation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia).
Taking an honest look at these policies and how they might have backfired by increasing the North’s isolation and deepening its animosity towards the United States should be a prerequisite to any rational response to Kim’s obvious appeal today for an end to the Korean War. It’s high time for Americans to stop pretending that the United States is an innocent bystander in Korea and to recognize a simple truth: it takes two to tango.
Tim Shorrock is a correspondent for The Nation who was raised in Japan and South Korea. He has been writing about US policy in Korea since the late 1970s.