As Kim Jong-un’s threats complicate China-Russia sanctions relief push, who will blink first?

Shi Jiangtao

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un stands at a crossroads, with his latest nuclear provocations jeopardising talks with the United States and presenting obstacles for China and Russia in their calls to ease sanctions on his regime, analysts said.

Kim this week warned of unspecified “shocking” action at a rare, multi-day internal meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, and pledged to bolster the country’s nuclear deterrent against what he called “gangster-like” pressure from the US, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Thursday urged North Korea to refrain from ratcheting up tensions.

“In the current situation, increasing tensions is not conducive to dialogue and is not advisable,” he said. “We hope that the relevant parties, especially [North Korea] and the US, will adhere to dialogue and consultation, walk in the opposite direction, actively seek ways to break the deadlock, and make practical efforts to promote a political settlement of the peninsula issue.”

In a 4,300-word report on Wednesday, the KCNA said Kim had made a seven-hour speech at the Workers’ Party meeting. Kim blamed the US for “wasting time away” by stalling talks about North Korean denuclearisation without a real intention to relax economic sanctions in return.

He said North Korea was no longer obliged to maintain a self-imposed suspension on testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Kim also vowed to introduce a “new strategic weapon” in the near future and said North Koreans needed to “tighten our belts” in the face of an unfavourable environment for economic development.

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The unusual four-day meeting and Kim’s long speech indicated the significance of the gathering and may have signalled a major shift in Pyongyang’s policy towards Washington, according to analysts.

Kim’s threats to resume weapons tests, which would almost certainly revive tensions in the region, are also likely to unsettle and alienate Beijing and Moscow after they called for some sanctions relief for the North, said Zhang Liangui, an expert at the Communist Party’s Central Party School in Beijing.

Russia and China last month put forward a proposal calling on the United Nations Security Council to lift some of the export bans on North Korea – including for textiles, seafood and statues – in exchange for Pyongyang’s cooperation on denuclearisation.

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“Pyongyang’s provocations in recent months have significantly reduced the chances of success for a push by China and Russia for relaxation of the sweeping economic sanctions,” Zhang said.

Both Zhang and Sun Xingjie, an expert on North Korea at Jilin University, noted that North Korea had so far kept silent about the Beijing-Moscow proposition.

They also noted that Kim had deliberately been vague about what the new strategic weapon was and when it would be introduced, leaving the door open for potential future negotiations with the US. “The scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated depending on the US’ future attitude to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Kim said in his speech, referring to the North by its official name.

Kim’s remarks came with nuclear talks between the US and the North having been in limbo since the collapse of a February summit in Hanoi between Kim and US President Donald Trump.

Sun said that US-North Korean relations were subject to greater uncertainty this year because of deep-rooted distrust, hostility and misperception, along with this year’s US presidential election.

“I am not at all optimistic about the prospects for the Korean peninsula, but I still think both sides could avert a replay of the 2017 crisis,” he said.

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The KCNA said Kim concluded his speech with a veiled threat of a return to 2017’s antagonism, in which Kim traded belligerent barbs with Trump. At one point, Trump threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against Pyongyang over its repeated provocations that included tests of a nuclear weapon and an intercontinental missile capable of striking most of the US.

Zhang said it was important to watch what Pyongyang did next as Kim faced a dilemma. If the North Korean dictator were to renege on his denuclearisation commitments and end talks on denuclearisation that started in early 2018, he would risk inviting further sanctions from the US.

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Instead, Kim could try to resume talks with the US by freezing nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a suspension of joint military exercises by the US and South Korea, according to Zhang.

Kim’s strategy of raising pressure on the Trump administration in recent months to force concessions on economic sanctions relief – including short-range missile tests since May – has failed to move Washington.

Pyongyang warned in October that it would take a “new path” unless the US changed its policy towards the North by the end of the year. That warning was issued a day after negotiations in Stockholm broke down when Washington rejected Pyongyang’s demands for economic sanctions relief without concrete promises on denuclearisation.

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