It was exactly one year ago today that DPRK (North Korea) Chairman Kim Jong-un delivered a speech addressed primarily to Seoul but whose reverberations were felt around the world. In Kim’s speech from New Year’s Day 2018, he proposed the following as the basis for a peace and reconciliation process between Pyongyang and Seoul:
“First of all, we should work together to ease the acute military tension between the north and the south and create a peaceful environment on the Korean peninsula.
As long as this unstable situation, which is neither wartime nor peacetime, persists, the north and the south cannot ensure the success of the scheduled events, nor can they sit face to face to have a sincere discussion over the issue of improving bilateral relations, nor will they advance straight ahead towards the goal of national reunification.
The north and the south should desist from doing anything that might aggravate the situation, and they should make concerted efforts to defuse military tension and create a peaceful environment.
The south Korean authorities should respond positively to our sincere efforts for a detente, instead of inducing the exacerbation of the situation by joining the United States in its reckless moves for a north-targeted nuclear war that threatens the destiny of the entire nation as well as peace and stability on this land. They should discontinue all the nuclear war drills they stage with outside forces, as these drills will engulf this land in flames and lead to bloodshed on our sacred territory. They should also refrain from any acts of bringing in nuclear armaments and aggressive forces from the United States.
Even though the United States is wielding the nuclear stick and going wild for another war, it will not dare to invade us because we currently have a powerful nuclear deterrent. And when the north and the south are determined, they can surely prevent the outbreak of war and ease tension on the Korean peninsula.
A climate favourable for national reconciliation and reunification should be established.
The improvement of inter-Korean relations is a pressing matter of concern not only to the authorities but to all other Koreans, and it is a crucial task to be carried out through a concerted effort by the entire nation. The north and the south should promote bilateral contact, travel, cooperation and exchange on a broad scale to remove mutual misunderstanding and distrust, and fulfil their responsibility and role as the motive force of national reunification”.
As last year’s speech came after a sustained period of intensifying threats that were exchanged between Washington and Pyongyang with accompanying US Naval moments in north east Asia and DPRK missile and nuclear tests underscoring the rhetoric, many were taken aback when Kim proposed a strategy to de-escalate tensions through a trans-Korean reconciliation process.
In the twelve months that have followed, Pyongyang and Seoul have accomplished multiple goals within the framework of an ongoing peace process. Achievements for Korean peace in 2018 included the breaking of ground on a new Seoul funded railway that will link the two Korean capitals, the beginnings of de-militarisation and joint security efforts in the wildly inaccurately named de-militarised zone (DMZ) separating the two Korean states, a commitment by both sides to embrace full de-nuclearisation, statements from South Korean President Moon Jae-in calling for a relaxing of US instigated and UN approved (in 2017) sanctions against Pyongyang, Moon’s historic visit to Kim in Pyongyang, a planned forthcoming visit by Kim to Seoul, the historic summit in Singapore between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, multiple meetings between Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping after years of incredibly frosty relations and the participation of a joint Korean team at both the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea as well as at the Asian Games in Indonesia.
No matter how the cynics try to spin it, the tangible results of the fast moving peace process in 2018 are now clear for all to see. Of course, questions remain regarding how smooth the process will progress in 2019.
An early set of answers to these questions was provided from none other than the original instigator of last year’s peace process, Kim Jong-un. During this morning’s New Year Addresses, Kim emphasised his continued determination to see through a positive peace process that includes both a de-nuclearisation drive and the opening up of the DPRK economy that was mutually agreed at last years DPRK-US summit in Singapore. Beyond this, Kim made it clear for the first time in his own words that he agrees with South Korean President Moon that the US should amend its current policy and relax anti-DPRK sanctions now rather than after the conclusion of the de-nuclearisation process.
But while Kim was merely repeating statements from his South Korean counterpart in respect of seeking a rapid end to US sanctions in-line with the continued DPRK commitment to de-nuclearisation, the way in which Kim phrased his statement led many to misreport the actual content of his address in respect of the DPRK Chairman’s remarks on how the peace process ought to move forward. During his address, Kim praised the overall trajectory of the peace process in the following way:
“It is the unwavering position of our party and the republic’s government and my firm will that the two countries as declared in the June 12 joint statement … take steps to establish a permanent and stable peace regime and push toward the complete de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, Therefore, we have already declared domestically and internationally and took various actions showing our commitment that we will no further create or test nuclear weapons and will not use or spread them”.
Echoing previous statements of intent from Donald Trump regarding a second DPRK-US leadership summit, Kim stated:
“I am ready to sit with the US President again at any time in the future and will make efforts by all means to produce a result that will be welcomed by the international community”.
In respect to an overall improvement of DPRK-US relations, Kim further remarked:
“If the United States takes sincere measures and corresponding action to our leading and pre-emptive efforts, then [DPRK-US] relations will advance at a fast and excellent pace through the process of implementing definite and groundbreaking measures”.
And yet it was the following statement from Kim which has led to an overall misrepresentation of the content and even the tone of his particularly casual (by DPRK standards) address:
“If the US fails to carry out its promise to the world and misjudges our patience and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure upon the DPRK, we might be compelled to explore a new way to safeguard our sovereignty and interests and establish peace and stability on the Korean peninsula”.
It is necessary to analyse this statement within the context of the speech as a whole. Throughout Kim’s speech, he argued for the maintenance of the status quo established last year in the following areas:
–a full DPRK commitment to de-nuclearisation
–a full DPRK commitment to establish new economic ties with the wider world as was reiterated at multiple summits last year including those held between Kim and Xi, Kim and Moon, Kim and Trump as well as Kim and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.
–A full commitment to moving forward in respect of improving DPRK-US relations
–A call for the US to maintain its Trump instigated policy of pausing large-scale US military deals in and around Korea
–A commitment to hold future direct engagements with key members of the international community including Donald Trump
In each of these areas Kim was restating prior commitments rather than exploring new commitments, let alone reneging on old ones. Beyond this, in his calls for the US to ease sanctions as a means to meet Pyongyang half way in the midst of a continuing de-nuclearisation process, Kim was merely stating what his South Korean counterpart has been saying for several months, as well as what Chinese and Russian officials have proposed to the United Nations.
Finally, in warning that if the US is not able to compromise on easing sanctions sooner rather than later, the DPRK would “explore a new way to safeguard our sovereignty and interests and establish peace and stability on the Korean peninsula”, this in no way implies a threat to end the peace process and return to the age of regular nuclear and ballistic missile tests. Such an interpretation of Kim’s words negates the fact that even in the very sentence in question, he emphasised “peace and stability on the Korean peninsula”. A negative interpretation of this portion of Kim’s address further negates to understand the more obvious implied “threat” which was not one of violence but instead a warning that if the US does not lead the way in rolling back economic sanctions, Pyongyang will pivot its long term economic priorities ever closer to existing partner countries who might do so. Such countries in this context would appear to be the DPRK’s neighbours China and Russia while South Korea has also taken a leading role in championing economic openness as an incentive for even more rapid de-nuclearisation.
In conclusion therefore, one would be remiss in calling Kim Jong-un’s speech anything other than a signpost indicating that the peace process will continue and likely accelerate in 2019. While Kim did indeed thrown the proverbial ball into the US court, he did so not in a spirit of unilateralism but instead did so by associating himself with the well known positions of all three of his state neighbours – South Korea, China and Russia. Therefore, his statement can hardly been interpreted as a radical departure from what others have already said. Instead, Kim was merely re-affirming well known regional policy positions while also extending a further olive branch to the US President that he has apparently enjoyed a warm personal relationship with ever since their first meeting last year in Singapore.