North Korea threatens nuclear confrontation if sanctions persist

Kim Jong-un says he is prepared to have a second summit meeting with Trump

North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un: “But if the counterpart [US] continues with its past habits, it won’t be good, but I hope they stop this.”  Photograph: KCNA

North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un: “But if the counterpart [US] continues with its past habits, it won’t be good, but I hope they stop this.” Photograph: KCNA


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said on Tuesday that he was willing to have a second summit with US president Donald Trump, but he paired the offer with a threat that if international sanctions against his country were not lifted, the North would “have no choice” but to return to nuclear confrontation.

“I am willing to meet the United States president at any time for the betterment of our international community,” Mr Kim said in his New Year’s Day speech, broadcast on North Korea’s state-run television.

“However, if the United States does not keep its promise in our international community and misinterprets our patience and intention and continues with the sanctions, then we have no choice for the sake of our national interest and peace of the Korean peninsula but to come up with new initiatives and new measures.”

Wearing a suit and tie and sitting in an overstuffed leather armchair in a book-lined room, Mr Kim offered a largely motivational speech about the need to strengthen the North Korean economy. But he took the opportunity to reiterate a demand that South Korea cease all military drills with “other foreign sources”.

“Those should be completely stopped,” Mr Kim said. “That is our stance.”

There were sparse direct references in the speech to denuclearisation. But he said the country would not be willing to take further steps toward removing its nuclear weapons unless the US reciprocated. “The statements and agreements after the summit with the United States were that we are going toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and that is my resolute commitment,” he said.

‘Past habits’

“We will not make nuclear weapons and we will not proliferate nuclear weapons, and I have said this, and I will say this again now. If the United States can show corresponding measures, the relationship between the two countries will, through many processes, accelerate for the better. But if the counterpart continues with its past habits, it won’t be good, but I hope they stop this.” Mr Kim also indicated the North wanted a peace declaration formally ending the Korean war.

In declaring that he would not make nuclear weapons, Mr Kim was going further than anything he said at his summit with Mr Trump in Singapore in June. North Korea made no explicit promise to “freeze” its programme, and US intelligence officials have said they believe North Korea has continued to produce the fuel for nuclear weapons – and likely the weapons themselves. The distinction is a relatively minor one, because once the fuel is produced, fashioning it into weapons is no longer much of a challenge, as the North has proved through a series of nuclear tests that ended 13 months ago.

Nuclear sales

Mr Kim’s statement about proliferation addressed one of the major issues for secretary of state Mike Pompeo and his North Korea envoy, Stephen E Biegun. They have expressed concerns about the North’s long record of selling nuclear technology abroad – most famously to Syria, which built a full nuclear reactor based on a North Korean design and parts. It was destroyed by Israel in 2007.

Mr Kim’s demand that the US begin to lift sanctions before North Korea takes any steps toward dismantling its nuclear infrastructure is essentially a return to the state of affairs when Mr Trump took office early in 2017.

Mr Trump entered the White House vowing he would not repeat the mistakes of his predecessors, who lifted some sanctions. Mr Trump and his aides said the North would have to dismantle everything first and trust that sanctions would be lifted later.

Since the Singapore meeting, Mr Trump has occasionally seemed to waver on the question of lifting some sanctions before the North dismantles its facilities and gives up its weapons and missiles. Now, with Mr Kim’s demand, he must decide whether to back down – and take steps similar to those of his predecessors.