President Trump was quick to celebrate peace on the Korean Peninsula after his summit meeting with Kim Jong Un last year. Since then, however, progress has been mixed as North Korea refrained from nuclear testing and held high-level talks with the South but also failed to dismantle its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Now, in his New Year’s address, Kim Jong Un is warning President Trump that unless the United States “takes genuine measures for building trust” the North may return to its old ways.
In the speech, reported by Politico, Kim noted steps that he had taken toward the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula saying that he agreed “that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them, and we have taken various practical measures” to fulfill this promise. He then challenged President Trump with two words: “Your turn.”
What Kim wants is illustrated by a statement issued in December through North Korean state media. “When we refer to the Korean peninsula, they include both the area of the DPRK and the area of South Korea where aggression troops including the nuclear weapons of the U.S. are deployed,” the statement said and then continued, “When we refer to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it, therefore, means removing all elements of nuclear threats from the areas of both the north and the south of Korea and also from surrounding areas from where the Korean peninsula is targeted.” The statement called on the US to lift the sanctions on North Korea as well as for “completely removing the nuclear threats of the U.S. to the DPRK.”
Essentially, Kim is telling President Trump that the North Korean position on denuclearization is unchanged. The North rejects unilateral denuclearization and wants the US to remove its nuclear weapons from the Korean theater. The US removed its nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, but in his speech, Kim said that “strategic assets,” which North Korea often understands to include anti-ballistic missile systems as well as submarines and aircraft carriers, “should no longer be permitted” in or near the Korean Peninsula.
Kim also wants to be rewarded for the actions that he has already taken over the past year. His price for the détente with South Korea is the removal of US sanctions.
Kim also sought to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea. While President Trump is pushing South Korea to based on the peninsula, Kim encouraged the South to participate in several bilateral projects that exclude the United States.
In the speech, Kim warned that North Korea “might find ourselves in a situation where we have no other choice but to find a new way” if the US did not uphold its end of the bargain. While Kim was not specific about what “new way” the North might take, most observers doubt that it would involve a resumption of nuclear testing.
“One thing is clear: Kim is not going to return to any sort of posture where the US or its allies would consider a military attack, and that means no missile or nuclear tests for the foreseeable future,” Harry Kazianis of the Washington-based Centre for the National Interest told the South China Morning Post.
Ruediger Frank, an analyst at 38 North, believes that the entreaties to South Korean President Moon provide a clue as to what Kim’s “new way” would be. The speech was a message to Donald Trump, he writes, saying, “You are not our only option for security and economic development. If you refuse to be cooperative, we will ignore you and turn to China. Oh, and we will take South Korea along.”
Kazianis agreed, “Kim can present Trump with a choice: Either play ball with me on a negotiated nuclear settlement and reduce sanctions or I will go to China for help and get the economic development I want and keep my nukes.”
President Trump’s trade war now places him in an awkward position with respect to Korea. President Trump signed a new trade deal with South Korea last year that limits South Korean steel and aluminum exports to the US. The trade spat with China means that Trump now has less leverage with the Chinese against the North Koreans. The three geographical neighbors may become closer trading partners at the expense of US influence in the region.
If North Korea can pull the South into China’s orbit, it would be a major blow to the United States. South Korea is one of America’s largest trading partners in terms of both imports and exports. The nation is also home to 15 US military bases that provide a counterbalance to China as well as protecting South Korea from Northern aggression.
President Trump responded to Kim’s challenge with a New Year’s Day tweet, saying, “I also look forward to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!”