Current Issues and Policies
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Current Issues and Policies

North Korea-U.S. Relations in 2019: U.S. Reaction to Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Address
2019.01.08  Tuesday
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Woo Jung-Yeop


North Korea-U.S. Relations in 2019:
U.S. Reaction to Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Address



Current Issues and Policies No. 2019-02

January 8, 2018

Dr. Woo Jung-Yeop

Director, Center for American Studies, the Sejong Institute





The U.S. observed Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address particularly attentively this year. Generally, the U.S. observers are prone to undervalue the explanatory values attached to Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address. That is, they attached infinitesimal significance to the address in predicting North Korea’s behavior toward the outside world. Nevertheless, the U.S. pundits paid interest to Kim’s New Year’s address this year for two reasons. First, the last year’s address had details that actually precipitated changes in North Korea’s relations with South Korea and the U.S. - Kim Jong-un mentioned North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and thereafter, the relations developed rapidly. Second, they had expectations that Kim Jong-un’s address may include indicators to understand the North Korea-U.S. gridlock as the U.S. had no clue why North Korea has not engaged with the U.S. since the latter half of 2018, only issuing statements through various channels and not showing up at high- and working-level talks.   


General U.S. View on Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Address of 2019

The primary response to the address was that it did not have specific comments to prophesize North Korea’s behavior in the future, unlike the address in 2018. In 2018, Chairman Kim pronounced a detailed plan of action in relation to the improvement of inter-Korean relations - the participation in the PyeongChang Olympics; however, he did not speak of such details that may hint at North Korea’s foreign policy for the first half of 2019. In last year’s New Year’s address, Kim Jong-un did not directly mention negotiations with neither South Korea nor the U.S. and conveyed a message, using words such as nuclear button and deployment - opposite to those phrases related to the improvement of inter-Korean relations and participation in the Olympics. Consequently, the U.S. had suspicions on North Korea’s intentions even when North Korea actually sent a delegation and a group of athletes for PyeongChang Olympics. Even so, as the series of diplomatic events, unexpected at the time of the New Year’s address, took place following North Korea’s participation in the sporting event, the time seemed to fly in 2018.

The New Year’s address in 2019 lacked contents on the specific course of action. Thus, it was difficult to find clues to why North Korea did not accept U.S. offer of dialogue in the second half of 2018. And it also did not contain any detailed signals on in what form North Korea’s foreign policy will take shape for the near future.

Despite such points, Kim Jong-un’s address did have some points that may be interpreted as his interest in the negotiations with the U.S. Hence, the U.S. could evaluate that it still has negotiations ongoing with North Korea in early 2019. Kim Jong-un explicitly stated his interest in the summit talks with President Trump, “I am of the opinion that, while meeting and holding talks beneficial to both sides with the US president in June last year, we exchanged constructive views and reached a consensus of understanding for a shortcut to removing each other's apprehensions and resolving the entangled problems. 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.” North Korea’s statement in the latter half of 2018 consistently followed this trait – condemning the U.S. officials but refraining from criticizing President Trump. Refusing working-level negotiations and expressing the intent of summit imply North Korea’s perception to the U.S. - that it can reap the desired outcome through the Kim-Trump summit skipping the working- or even high-level negotiations. However, U.S. interlocutors view that the second DPRK-U.S. summit without any substantial progress in working-level negotiations will be unable to induce North Korea’s substantial measures on denuclearization like the Singapore summit last June and that the summit beginning from scratch has the risk of President Trump unilaterally pledging an unexpected condition. Therefore, the U.S. has consistently demanded North Korea of discussion on specific means of denuclearization through working-level negotiations since the last summit in June.


U.S. Understanding of North Korea’s Directions on Negotiations

Kim Jong-un made the U.S. comprehend why North Korea currently halted in engaging with the U.S. through the address. He said, “we declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them, and we have taken various practical measures. If the US responds to our proactive, prior efforts with trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions, bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace through the process of taking more definite and epochal measures.” This remark from Chairman Kim is likely to give the U.S. some food for thought internally.

Foremost, Kim Jong-un’s phrase, “we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them,” will invite questions from the U.S. analysts over Kim Jong-un’s definition of denuclearization. When the negotiations begin in earnest, Kim Jong-un and North Korea may have to express its definition of denuclearization and the endpoint of the negotiations on denuclearization and whether this definition of denuclearization reconciles with the definition indicated by the U.S., South Korea, and the international community. Nonetheless, the predominant view in the U.S. on Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address in 2019 is that as Kim Jong-un did not mention the abandonment of existing nuclear weapons in his address, the North Korean regime attempts to confine the subject of negotiations to the freeze of nuclear capabilities or nuclear materials and facilities related to future nuclear capabilities. Kim Jong-un stated that North Korea will adhere to the responsibilities of nuclear-weapon state as if North Korea is one of these states as the Article 1 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) stipulates, ‘Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices’ and included details that it will comply with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – that the U.S. did not sign – by mentioning that it will not test nuclear weapons. Pyongyang emphasized that it will comply with the obligations of the international community even though it did not enter or ratify both the NPT and CTBT. However, the international community will have suspicions on North Korea’s goals – whether it aims at possessing the existing nuclear stockpile to be recognized as ‘nuclear-weapon state’ - since Pyongyang did not mention the existing nuclear weapons and materials that the international community has more interest in.

Should North Korea actually have the intentions as the U.S. analysts understand, the U.S. demand related to the declaration of the list of existing nuclear weapons and materials has no chance of acceptance from North Korea in the first place. North Korea will feel unnecessary to declare the list because it does not regard the existing nuclear arsenal as a negotiable matter.

This may have been originated from the calculus that the U.S. has a keen interest in the North Korean nuclear issue for one reason and it could negotiate with President Trump over this reason. While the North Korean nuclear issue has persisted since the late 1980s and continued to advance its nuclear capabilities through several nuclear tests even after Kim Jong-un sat at the helm, the U.S. began to engage actively with North Korea when North Korea test-fired intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and President Trump also highlighted the fact to the American public that his meeting with Kim Jong-un ensured that North Korea no longer fires missiles. Given this state of affairs, North Korea may have calculations that it could negotiate on this point - ICBMs.

The U.S. officials perceive that North Korea prefers the second summit with President Trump over negotiations with U.S. officials – having a higher probability of exchanging sanctions relief with future nuclear and missile capabilities when the former is the negotiation counterpart, while the latter demands the declaration of list of nuclear arsenal, bringing up the existing nuclear weapons as subject for negotiations. Because it is aware that the U.S. officials have such perception, the North Korean regime seems to continue to engage in ‘personal-letter diplomacy’ to have direct discussions with President Trump.


U.S. Policy Direction

The U.S. civil servants predict that the situation could unfold in four different scenarios. On the extremes, one will lead to the peaceful resolution to the issue and the ensuing advancement in DPRK-U.S. relations and the other end is the return to the situation in 2017. The peaceful resolution scenario bifurcates, one is Chairman Kim’s sudden acceptance to the international community’s means of denuclearization and another is President Trump could agree with Chairman Kim, insufficient to deem the agreement as ‘complete denuclearization.’ Between the peaceful resolution scenario and the increased military tension scenario lies the current status quo – carrying on with the negotiations.

In addition, the second DPRK-U.S. summit may turn out as the two sides exchanging incomplete denuclearization with partial removal of sanctions or the circumstances in the latter half of 2018 could extend to the year 2019. This is attributable to a few points: the New Year’s address indicated the low possibility of Chairman Kim capitulating to the international community’s concept of denuclearization; President Trump lacks the justification to veer toward raising military tensions or hinting at use of force if North Korea does not test missiles or withdraws completely from negotiations and it even does not help the election trail that begins from early 2019 to 2020.

The most important thing here is which side the time stands on and which side can endure the current state longer. The U.S. officials believe that time is on their side as long as sanctions remain intact. Hence, it is unlikely for the U.S. to respond with “trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions” as the address underscored. Still, President Trump could possibly hasten the summit, differing from the officials’ opinions, because of political circumstances or his own conviction. The second summit, if held, causes concern for the U.S. officials as President Trump may provide political concessions to North Korea - for example, improvement of bilateral relations or some element on ROK-U.S. alliance – as a cost of negotiation while maintaining the sanctions regime as President Trump himself underlined until recently.


South Korea’s Role

Regarding this year’s New Year’s address, the U.S. observers talked less about the remarks on the North Korean economy. While they acknowledge that the address allocated a considerable portion on the economy, they lacked the analysis on what this actually denotes. One crucial factor related to the negotiations with North Korea is to what extent the North Korean economy can endure international sanctions.

The U.S. negotiation tactics on North Korea have evolved from the initiation of the negotiations with North Korea in early 2018. This is ascribed to the lack of information on the current situation of the North Korean economy. In early 2018, some in the U.S. expressed that the denuclearization talks will only be possible when North Korea transfers existing nuclear warheads and missiles overseas as a preliminary measure. At that time, the U.S. viewed that the North Korean economy is in dire straits, thus, requiring the removal or ease of sanctions through denuclearization as soon as possible. Nonetheless, the U.S. administration, in 2018, revised their perception of the North Korean economy through the negotiation process and adjusted the demand and subject of negotiations. Therefore, it is crucial to provide objective analyses of North Korea’s current economic situation to the U.S. policy circle for the U.S. to understand the current situation and decide how to approach negotiations with North Korea in 2019.




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


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