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Evaluating Kim Jong-un’s 2019 New Year’s Address: Inter-Korean Relations, Denuclearization, and DPRK-U.S. Talks
2019.01.02  Wednesday
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Cheong Seong-Chang
Evaluating Kim Jong-un’s 2019 New Year’s Address:

Inter-Korean Relations, Denuclearization, and DPRK-U.S. Talks

 

No. 2019-01 (January 2, 2019)

Dr. Cheong Seong-Chang

Vice President for Research Planning, the Sejong Institute

softpower@sejong.org

 

North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un of Workers’ Party of Korea announced the ritual New Year’s address with an unprecedented tone and format – speaking in a stable and restrained tone at a Western-style ornamented office with photos of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hanging on the wall. This breaks from the precedent cases where he uttered the remarks behind a podium with a fairly scathing and rough tone.

Chairman Kim seems to have renewed his style of announcing the New Year’s address this year to boast symbolically that he is poised to take a novel path through the three inter-Korean summits and the first-ever DPRK-U.S. summit.

In his address, the North Korean leader allocated a considerable amount of the speech on economy and relations with South Korea and the U.S. It reflects his biggest interest last year and this year and implies his resolve to engage actively in economic development and relations with South Korea and the U.S.

Particularly concerning the inter-Korean relations, Kim Jong-un emphasized “the firm resolve and will to usher in an era of peace in which war exists no longer on the Korean peninsula” and clearly pronounced his opposition to the ROK-U.S. joint military exercise and the deployment of U.S. strategic assets on the peninsula. Nonetheless, this statement will not act against the development of inter-Korean relations since Seoul and Washington will refrain from taking military action against North Korea.

On the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, Kim pointed out, “It is also needed to actively promote multi-party 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.” As “multi-party negotiations” obviously involves the participation of China, a signatory to the armistice agreement, Beijing will welcome the statement. Therefore, when North Korea’s denuclearization makes significant progress, the ROK-DPRK-U.S.-China quadrilateral talks will be held to discuss the transition from the architecture defined by the armistice agreement to a peace regime.

Regarding the inter-Korean economic cooperation, the young leader is likely to urge the resumption of Mount Kumgang tourism and reoperation of Kaesong Industrial Complex, as he elucidated, “we are willing to resume the Kaesong Industrial Park and Mt Kumgang tourism without any precondition and in return for nothing.” Hence, the South Korean government needs to ask the U.S. and UN Security Council to ease sanctions on North Korea to reoperate the Kaesong Industrial Complex and resume Mt Kumgang tourism should North Korea permanently decommission nuclear-related sites in Yongbyon or take a substantial measure for denuclearization.

In relation to the Korean unification issue, Chairman Kim Jong-un said the two Koreas should “actively try to find a peaceful reunification plan based on nationwide agreement and direct sincere efforts to this end.” Consequently, the North Korean authorities will probably take up measures that lead to unification as a key issue in inter-Korean dialogue - in line with the recognition of the term articulated in the June 15 Inter-Korean Joint Declaration in 2000, “there is a common element in the South's concept of a confederation and the North's formula for a loose form of federation.” However, since some in South Korea have a deep misunderstanding of North Korea’s ‘loose form of confederation,’ it may instigate strife within the South Korean society. Thus, the South Korean government should strive to ensure that the public has an accurate understanding of the outline and details of the June 15 Inter-Korean Joint Declaration.

The North Korean supreme leader claimed, “we declared at home and abroad that we would neither make [emphasized added by the author] and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them, and we have taken various practical measures” regarding North Korea’s denuclearization. The assertion that North Korea halted production of nuclear weapons, beyond suspending nuclear tests is a fully telling statement. If this assertion proves to be true, South Korea and the international community will be able to fend off the arguments made by some American pundits – that North Korea continues to produce nuclear weapons and will possess around 100 nuclear warheads by 2020. This will also have a positive effect on North Korea-U.S. negotiations.

While reaffirming his firm determination for the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and the ‘complete denuclearization,’ Chairman Kim expressed his will to improve the relations with the U.S. – “I want to believe that our relations with the United States will bear good fruit this year, as inter-Korean relations have greeted a great turn, by the efforts of the two sides.” And he added, “I am ready to meet the US president again anytime, and will make efforts to obtain without fail results which can be welcomed by the international community,” having a welcoming attitude on the second DPRK-U.S. summit.

In the meantime, he also alluded, “we may be compelled to find a new way” when the U.S. miscalculates the North Koreans’ patience, enforces North Korea to concede, and adheres to sanctions and pressure. In the worst case scenario, North Korea may return to the byungjin line of simultaneous economic and nuclear development. This could be construed as North Korea’s internal discontent on the U.S. long silence, despite the term “The North expressed its willingness to continue to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 US-DPRK Joint Statement” included at the Pyongyang Joint Declaration last September.

Because Kim’s New Year’s address stresses the dialogue and fair negotiations with the U.S., the possibility of North Korea redirecting to the old byungjin line is very low. Nevertheless, if the U.S. fails to propose an adequate response to North Korea’s offer of its first crucial step toward denuclearization, the ‘permanent closure of Yongbyon nuclear facilities,’ the tedious and bridled gridlock between North Korea and the U.S. will be prolonged. Pyongyang will also echo warning messages that hint at the possibility of North Korea reversing its course to the byungjin line.

Consequently, the South Korean government should reach an agreement early with the U.S. administration on what to present vis-à-vis North Korea’s suggestion of ‘permanent closure of Yongbyon nuclear facilities,’ through bilateral strategic dialogue and coordination. And on the international community’s ‘corresponding measure’ to the shutdown of Yongbyon nuclear sites, South Korea should make sure that its interests are maximally included – the reoperation of Kaesong Industrial Complex, resumption of Mt. Kumgang tourism, and the construction to connect railroads and roads between the two Koreas as both Koreas hope for. It is desirable to discuss also the initiation of ‘quadrilateral talks’ for the transition from the state of a ceasefire to a peace regime.

It may be irrational to demand North Korea of making more crucial concessions when North Korea already put forth the card of ‘permanent shut down of the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon’ at the inter-Korean summit last September. At this juncture, it is rather more significant for South Korea and the U.S. to prepare and present the option of ‘corresponding measure’ than pursuing Kim Jong-un’s visit to Seoul or the second DPRK-U.S. summit. Once South Korea and the U.S. markedly respond to North Korea’s measure to ‘permanently close the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon’ Kim Jong-un’s visit to Seoul and the second DPRK-U.S. summit will be more swift and smooth. This may also create a positive momentum to demand more from North Korea – possibly a second and even third phase in the denuclearization process.

 

Translator’s note: This is a summarized unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.

 

This article is written based on the author’s personal opinions and does not reflect the views of the Sejong Institute.