Kim Jong-un’s move may drive wedge between South Korea and US

North Korean leader calls for direct talks with Seoul in New Year’s Day message

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un says, during a televised speech, that the US will never be able to start a war against his country, now that they have developed the capability to hit all of the US mainland with nuclear weapons. Video: Reuters

 

North Korea’s surprise call on Monday for direct talks with South Korea could drive a wedge into the decades-old alliance between Seoul and Washington, potentially creating a reprieve from months of tensions but also undercutting President Donald Trump’s tough approach to the nuclear-armed North.

A New Year’s Day speech by Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, contained a dramatic shift in tone and policy regarding the South. After ignoring South Korea for years, Kim called for urgent dialogue to discuss improving ties and easing military tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula, even as he claimed an ability to strike mainland US with nuclear missiles.

Kim also agreed to a request by President Moon Jae-in of South Korea to send a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics to be held in the South next month. Kim’s about-face, which was broadcast on state-run television, came just days after Washington rallied its allies and rivals to support increasingly punishing United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

In his speech, Kim warned that he had “a nuclear button” in his office that could send intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), hurtling toward any point in the mainland US. He also vowed to increase production of nuclear-capable missiles.

Analysts said Kim was looking for opportunities to weaken international resolve to enforce the penalties, as well as to sow discord between the US and South Korea. Moon has repeatedly called for dialogue with the North, hoping that talks would ease tensions and lead to broader international negotiations to end its nuclear weapons programme.

Dialogue engagement

Hours after Kim’s speech, Moon’s office welcomed the North’s proposal. “We have already expressed our willingness to engage in a dialogue with North Korea at any time, in any place and in any format, as long as both sides can discuss restoring their relations and peace on the Korean Peninsula,” said Park Soo-hyun, Moon’s spokesman.

Trump, on the other hand, has stressed maximum pressure and sanctions, and even suggested possible military action to force the North to give up its nuclear arsenal. Moon officially supports the enforcement of UN sanctions. In recent weeks, his government has seized two oil tankers on the suspicion that they were used in violation of the sanctions to smuggle refined petroleum products into North Korea through ship-to-ship transfers on the high seas.

But the South Korean president also agrees with China and Russia that talks are needed to resolve the nuclear crisis. Kim’s sudden peace overture on Monday will probably encourage both South Korea and China to raise their voices for dialogue.

On November 29th, when the North launched an ICBM with engines powerful enough to send a warhead to the US east coast, North Korea already claimed to have completed its nuclear arsenal. Analysts have said that the North has yet to master the missile technology needed to protect a nuclear warhead when it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere from space. They said that despite the North’s claim to have completed its weapons programme, the regime was likely to conduct more weapons tests to improve its capabilities.

Crippling sanctions

But in addition to improving its weapons technology, the North also wants to ease crippling sanctions that limit fuel supplies and hard currency entering the country.

For Moon, the inter-Korean talks would provide a badly needed respite after a year in which Kim and Trump regularly exchanged threats of war. Trump has said he could unleash “fire and fury” and “totally destroy North Korea” while North Korea has suggested it could conduct a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific.

Increasingly anxious over a possible armed conflict, Moon seeks to create a lull in the nuclear standoff during the Olympics and use its momentum to start talks with North Korea. Such talks, he hopes, might eventually lead to broader negotiations in which the US, China and other regional stakeholders could offer economic and diplomatic incentives to the North in return for the freeze and eventual dismantling of its nuclear weapons programme. – New York Times