Extending the biggest geopolitical rivalry of 2017 into the new year, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un warned the United States that he has a "nuclear launch button" on his desk ready for use if North Korea is threatened, but offered an olive branch to South Korea, saying he was "open to dialogue" with Seoul raising the possibility of easing tensions on the Korean peninsula.
After a year dominated by fiery rhetoric and escalating belligerence over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Kim used his televised New Year’s Day speech to declare North Korea "a peace-loving and responsible nuclear power" and call for lower military tensions on the Korean peninsula and improved ties with the South, Reuters reported. In a change of tone from last year's address, Kim on Monday acknowledged the need to reduce military tension with the South and said the path to dialogue was open, raising expectations for an improvement in inter-Korean relations.
“When it comes to North-South relations, we should lower the military tensions on the Korean Peninsula to create a peaceful environment,” Kim said. “Both the North and the South should make efforts.”
The dictator also said Pyongyang would consider sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics to be held in South Korea next month: "North Korea’s participation in the Winter Games will be a good opportunity to showcase the national pride and we wish the Games will be a success. Officials from the two Koreas may urgently meet to discuss the possibility."
Meanwhile, Kim maintained his hostile stance towards the US, urging Washington to admit North Korea as a nuclear state. He called for an increase in Pyongyang’s production of nuclear weapons, defying tough international sanctions aimed at pressuring the regime to give up its nuclear ambitions according to the FT.
"The US should be aware it is a reality, not a threat, that a nuclear button is always on my desk. All of the US mainland is now within the striking distance of our nuclear weapons" Kim said, while emphasizing that the weapons would only be used if North Korea is threatened, even as he added that "the US will never be able to start a war against me and my country."
2017 was marked by an escalating nuclear arms race in which North Korea tested intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September, defying international warnings and sanctions, raising fears of a new conflict on the Korean peninsula.
After testing what Pyongyang said was its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of delivering a warhead to anywhere in the continental United States, at the end of November, Kim declared his nuclear force complete.
He continued that theme in his New Year’s address, announcing that North Korea would focus on “mass producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment” in the coming year. This, Kim said, was “irreversible with any force”, making it impossible for the United States to start a war against North Korea.
Kim reiterated that North Korea had achieved “the historic feat of completing its nuclear forces” that provided it with a strong deterrence against any “adventurous playing with fire” by the US.
“This year we should focus on mass producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment,” Mr Kim said. “These weapons will be used only if our security is threatened.”
Asked by reporters to comment on Kim’s speech, U.S. President Donald Trump simply said “we’ll see, we’ll see”, as he walked into New Year’s eve celebration at Mar-a-Lago, according to Reuters.
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Kim’s customary New Year’s speech is closely watched for indications of the policy direction the unpredictable and reclusive leader is likely to pursue in the coming year. Beyond listing military accomplishments, Kim also outlined economic gains as part of his two-pronged policy of developing his country’s economy and military.
Despite increased international sanctions imposed over the weapons program, "North Korea made progress in areas like fabrics, shoes and tractors", Kim said.
While Kim is keen to declare his weapons program a success, he is unlikely to completely end his contentious testing regime, said Scott LaFoy, a ballistic missile analyst at the website NK Pro, which monitors North Korea.
Kim seems likely to tone down his weapons testing at least ahead of the Olympics, said Nam Sung-wook, a North Korea expert at Korea University in Seoul.
“What North Korea is most afraid of is being forgotten in the international arena,” he said. “Without launching missiles and conducting a nuclear test, North Korea will be in the spotlight just by attending the Winter Olympics.”
South Korea responded with hope to the olive branch offered by Pyongyang, and as the FT notes, Seoul’s presidential Blue House welcomed Kim’s offer of inter-Korean dialogue.
"We have always stated our willingness to talk with North Korea any time and anywhere if that would help restore inter-Korean relations and lead to peace on the Korean peninsula." spokesman Park Su-hyun told a media briefing on Monday. “We hope the two Koreas will sit down and find a solution to lower tensions and establish peace on the Korean peninsula.” Lee Hee-beom, president of the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee, said the organization welcomed participation by the North Koreans.
The de-escalation would come at an opportune moment for regional tensions: last month, the UN imposed its strongest sanctions on North Korea, further squeezing oil supplies to the impoverished state in a move that Pyongyang dubbed an “act of war”.
On Friday, South Korea said that it had seized a Hong Kong-registered ship it accuses of transferring oil to North Korea, in an announcement made hours after Trump threatened to take trade action against Beijing for allowing petrol supplies to reach Pyongyang.