By the second week of 2019, analysts were still trying to decide whether Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech was a ringing endorsement for peace talks leading to North-South Korean reconciliation, or a veiled threat to restart the country’s nuclear weapons program if the United States didn’t meet Kim’s demand of ending the sanctions imposed on his beleaguered juche economy.
It seems that both perspectives miss an important ingredient in Kim’s proposals: a new iteration of nationalism aimed at protecting the entire Korean nation—not just Kim’s domain in the North—from foreign interference. That’s how I read the section towards the end of his much-discussed address, when Kim introduced the term “sovereignty of the country.” By using these words, I think Kim is hoping to ignite an important shift in the political dynamics on the Korean Peninsula.
My conclusions have been reinforced by two factors: Kim's surprise visit to China this week, his fourth over the past year, and subsequent comments and analyses by North Korean state media in the wake of his New Year’s Day speech.
Kim, who has gone further than both his father and grandfather in reducing military tensions with South Korea, seemed to be sending a signal that he and South Korean president Moon Jae-in have embarked on a path for national salvation that can’t be stopped by any outside power. If this is correct, then we could be seeing the start of a new phase of Korean unity, with important implications for the future—especially for the United States.
Kim’s proposals don’t necessarily mean hostility to those foreign powers, however. In his speech, he was careful to emphasize that the two Koreas need the support of both the United States and China to move forward. Both Pyongyang and Seoul, he declared, should “actively promote multiparty negotiations for replacing the current ceasefire on the Korean peninsula with a peace mechanism in close contact with the signatories to the armistice agreement so as to lay a lasting and substantial peace-keeping foundation.”
This will almost certainly be discussed when Kim meets Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing this week. After all, Kim's reference to China in the context of the armistice “reflects his resolve to begin the process for establishing a peace regime via multilateral negotiations involving China,” said the progressive Hankyoreh newspaper.
“It seems Kim has concluded that he can put himself in a more advantageous position for negotiations with the US by securing regime security assurances and a bigger safety net through North Korea’s ties with China,” Hankyoreh added.
But what about his new nationalism?
According to Rodong Sinmun’s official translation of the New Year's Day speech, Kim made his reference to sovereignty just after declaring that the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, or DPRK, “would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer,” and that he was ready to meet President Donald Trump “again anytime” to continue the dialogue they began last June in Singapore.
“If the U.S. responds to our proactive, prior efforts with trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions,” he added, “bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace through the process of taking more definite and epochal measures.”
Kim’s offers not to proliferate in return for continued negotiations were seen by some commentators as hopeful and historic. For instance, Robert Carlin, the veteran U.S. intelligence analyst who helped the Clinton administration negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework, told the Wall Street Journal that Kim’s declaration was “the first of its kind from Pyongyang in a quarter-century.”
Kim “has deliberately left himself and President Trump maximum space for conducting negotiations leading up to a second summit,” Carlin added in his own wrap-up for 38 North (perhaps Kim outlined some of these ideas in the “great letter” President Trump says he received from Kim over the holidays).
But other aspects of his speech led to some pessimistic conclusions, including a widely quoted observation on Twitter from Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former member of the CIA.
Klingner assessed that Kim had indeed extended an olive branch “but with very sharp thorns.” Here’s what he was referring to: if the United States “attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic,” said Kim, “we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.”
Notice how he parsed these words. The United States, Kim declared, is using sanctions “as pressure against our Republic,” meaning the DPRK. In his mind, this “compels” North and South “to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country,” which I interpret as meaning all of Korea, North and South. This is the new formulation that I am speaking of.
He continued: “All the fellow countrymen should unite as one, being conscious that the master of peace on the peninsula is our nation, in order to wage a powerful struggle to check and frustrate all the moves that wreck peace and incite military tension on this land.”
Later, he added that “we should never tolerate the interference and intervention of outside forces who stand in the way of national reconciliation, unity and reunification with the design to subordinate inter-Korean relations to their tastes and interests.” And he demanded that the United States and South Korea terminate their joint military exercises “completely.”
Some saw these passages, especially Kim’s reference to a “new way” of defending North Korea, as an overt threat to restart building nuclear weapons unless Trump agrees to end sanctions or takes steps to sign a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice. That was Kim’s “essential message,” David Sanger wrote in the New York Times in a story headlined “Back at Square 1.” It quoted former U.S. diplomat Evans J. R. Revere saying that “not much has changed” over the last year.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies also seized on what he called Kim’s “nationalist note” about “outside forces” blocking reconciliation. “These have been themes of North Korean propaganda throughout the year—praising Moon while criticizing his opponents as lackeys of the Americans and the Japanese,” he wrote in the National Interest.
These analyses, I contend, fail to recognize how much has actually changed in the two Koreas this year. They also miss the fact that much of the narrow, conservative opposition to Moon’s outreach to the DPRK comes from individuals and political parties that actually do prefer a South Korea closely aligned with Japan and the United States rather than moving towards reconciliation and unification with North Korea.
It’s only in the context of these changes and political realities that Kim’s sovereignty pitch makes sense. He’s not trying to divide South Korea from the United States, in my view, but to unite all of Koreans in their desire for reconciliation and peace.
Kim reinforced that nationalist offer with proposals, still being considered by the Moon government, “to resume the Kaesong Industrial Park and Mt Kumgang tourism without any precondition and in return for nothing, in consideration of the hard conditions of businesspersons of the south side who had advanced into the Kaesong Industrial Park and the desire of southern compatriots who are eager to visit the nation’s celebrated mountain.”
“When north and south join hands firmly and rely on the united strength of the fellow countrymen, no external sanctions and pressure, challenges and trials will be able to hinder us in our efforts to open a broad avenue to national prosperity,” he added.
Here, Kim seemed to be looking back at the extraordinary events of 2018. After President Moon invited Kim’s senior advisers to revive the inter-Korean dialogue during the Pyeongchang Olympics last January, South and North Korea embarked on a series of high-level negotiations that lowered military tensions on the peninsula to an unimaginable degree. In one highly symbolic act at the end of 2018, guard posts were dismantled along strategic sections of the border. Days later, in scenes never before seen, soldiers from the two sides were mingling and shaking hands as the border seemed to disappear.
In his speech, Kim expressed great hopes in this process, calling the North-South military agreements signed in September a “virtual nonaggression declaration in which north and south have committed themselves to terminating fratricidal war based on force of arms.” He urged both sides to make “greater strides” this year to “reunify the country on the basis of the priceless achievements we made” in 2018.
Kim knows very well that these achievements came about only after Moon and the South Korean government managed to overcome U.S. resistance to both the military accords and other moves towards reconciliation, including the joint inter-Korean project to link their rail and transport systems.
Their differences focused largely on the sanctions, which the Trump administration refused at first to lift when it came to cross-border economic projects and even the opening of the new North-South liaison office in Gaesong (after Kim’s speech, Rodong Sinmun continued to criticize U.S. interference, calling it a “grave infringement of one nation’s autonomy,” according to NK News.)