Kim Jong-un wants to meet Donald Trump again, but that doesn’t mean he will give up his nukes
In a closely watched New Year address, Kim Jong-un, the 30-something leader of the world’s most secretive regime, expressed hope for more talks with Donald Trump about that often repeated word: denuclearisation.
But his message came with a warning — if the US persists with sanctions on the country, North Korea may “be left with no choice but to consider a new way to safeguard our sovereignty and interests”.
It is these lines in a long speech primarily about domestic economic development that have caught the eye of foreign observers.
And it shows just how easy the diplomatic breakthroughs of 2018 were compared to actually achieving anything fruitful from them.
The core problem has always been that Mr Kim ultimately wants the withdrawal of 28,000 US soldiers from South Korea in exchange for giving up his nuclear weapons.
As Mr Kim and his officials have stated many times, the presence of troops gives South Korea protection under America’s broader nuclear umbrella, as do other US military deployments in the region.
Though it wasn’t clearly enunciated in last year’s vague Trump–Kim declaration, the North Korean understanding of denuclearisation means those troops would eventually have to withdraw perhaps not just from South Korea but also from Japan, Guam, Saipan and possibly even scale down their military engagement with the Philippines.
“I don’t see that happening because the United States wants to secure its position in the region for the deepening US–China rivalry,” Professor Robert Nagy, an international relations specialist at International Christian University in Tokyo, said.
“The broad consensus in Washington amongst Democrats and Republicans is that the US needs to take a much tougher line on China, and how can they take a tougher line on China when they are weakening their alliance positions within the region?”
More imminently Mr Kim used this year’s address to again urge the US to lift sanctions that continue to punish North Korea for developing the nuclear weapons and missiles.
And it has been this immediate issue, rather than the long-term question about American troops, that bogged down negotiators from both countries towards the end of last year.
Fundamental problems between the US and North Korea remain. (AP: Wong Maye-E/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
North Korea’s economy is doing poorly under the existing sanctions
Unlike his father, Mr Kim has made economic improvements for the 25 million residents his priority and they will be vital for his regime’s survival.
But if the US were to lift the unilateral and UN sanctions, it would require a leap of faith that Mr Kim would then actually take further action on the missiles — such as giving US negotiators a list they have requested detailing exactly what weapons North Korea has.
Such is the mistrust that Mr Kim is desperate to meet Mr Trump again just to get some movement on these preliminary issues.
Another summit means another joint statement. It means negotiations.
Last time, Mr Trump surprisingly called a halt to joint US–South Korean military drills.
It appears Mr Kim is optimistic that Mr Trump would make further concessions.
A second summit early in 2019 would also help Mr Kim show a domestic audience he is on an equal footing with the leader of the free world.
And like last year, the North Korean leader would no doubt meet China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin to remind the White House that he has alternatives to help prop up and prolong his regime.
Even with South Korea’s current government pushing hard to facilitate the warming of US–North Korean ties, the fundamental problems have not changed.
“I don’t think there’s anything the United States can give the North Koreans to compel them to denuclearise in the short-to-medium term,” Professor Nagy said.
“By that I mean 20 years, and I know that’s pessimistic but it’s very realistic.”