Reading between the linesIn a New Year’s address on Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reiterated his determination to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula. While expressing a willingness to accept a second U.S.-North summit, he also warned he could take a “new path” if the United States continues to levy sanctions and put pressure on him. The new path Kim mentioned surely refers to a return to confrontation.
Kim also indicated a hope for the resumption of the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tours without any conditions. He called the improvement in inter-Korean ties last year a “remarkable achievement” and underscored a need to push forward multipartite negotiations to transform the 1953 Armistice Agreement into a permanent peace regime.
His address was different from past ones in many respects. In the past, he made his New Year’s address from a podium, but this time he delivered it sitting comfortably on a sofa in his office. He used the word “nuclear” 22 times last year, but used it only twice this year. Combative words such as “nuclear strike” or “nuclear button” disappeared. That could be a reflection of his confidence from a near perfection of nuclear armaments and stable governance of the country over the past year.
Kim allotted most of his time to stressing the importance of economic development. North Korea has been suffering from international sanctions over the last two years. As this year marks the fourth year of its Five-year Economic Project, Kim desperately needs economic development to help sustain regime security, which relies on the easing of sanctions. Above all, he needs to bring in materials and oil from overseas to generate electricity to develop light industries to improve the livelihoods of his people. He can export coal or restart the industrial park and tourism only after sanctions are lifted. The same applies to the reconnection of inter-Korean railways and roads.
But easing sanctions depends on denuclearization. If Kim wants to achieve his economic goals this year, he must take concrete steps to prove the authenticity of his promise to denuclearize. Without them, a second Kim-Trump summit — or his reciprocal visit to South Korea — would be meaningless. If he drags his feet on denuclearization, dark clouds will quickly gather over the peninsula.
The liberal Moon Jae-in administration must not accept Pyongyang’s peace offensives at face value: the government should keep faith with our allies when it deals with North Korea this year.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 2, Page 30