Donald Trump keeps faith in Kim Jong-un despite North Korea’s threat of ‘shocking action’

Park Chan-kyong

US President Donald Trump believes Kim Jong-un will keep his commitments on denuclearisation, despite the North Korean leader’s effective retraction of his pledge to refrain from carrying out nuclear and long-range missile tests.

“We did sign a contract, talking about denuclearisation. That was the No 1 sentence, ‘denuclearisation’, that was done in Singapore. I think he’s a man of his word,” Trump told reporters before heading to New Year festivities at his holiday retreat in Florida.

The president also said he still has a good relationship with Kim, and urged him not to step up provocations with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test.

Kim had said North Korea would show off a “new strategic weapon” in the near future and continue building up its nuclear deterrent in the face of “gangster-like” US sanctions, according to Pyongyang state media.

He also said the North was abandoning its moratoriums on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, accusing the United States of playing for time while waiting for the North to weaken gradually.

A self-imposed ban on such tests has been the centrepiece of the nuclear diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington over the past two years, which has seen three meetings between Kim and Trump, but little tangible progress.

“There is no ground for us to be unilaterally bound to the commitment any longer,” Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency cited Kim as telling a four-day meeting of top ruling party officials that ended on Tuesday.

North Korea threat: what’s Kim’s ‘new strategic weapon’?

Pyongyang residents watch the successful launch of an ICBM in 2017. Photo: AFP

Kim apparently decided to omit his annual, much-anticipated New Year speech, as the official Korea Central TV repeatedly showed footage of the party meeting with a voice-over.

“The world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK [North Korea]” Kim added.

North Korea in December ended a 17-month pause in ballistic activity by testing a slew of solid-fuel weapons that potentially expanded its capabilities to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, including US military bases there.

For months, Pyongyang has been demanding the easing of international sanctions imposed over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, while Washington has insisted it takes more tangible steps towards giving them up.

There is no ground for us to be unilaterally bound to the commitment [to a missile-test ban] any longer

Kim Jong-un

“North Korea has, in effect, put an ICBM to Donald Trump’s head in order to gain the two concessions it wants most: sanctions relief and some sort of security guarantee,” said Harry Kazianis of the Centre for the National Interest in Washington. “Kim Jong-un is playing a dangerous game of geopolitical chicken.”

Negotiations between the two sides have been largely deadlocked since the break-up of their Hanoi summit in February, and the North set the US an end-of-year deadline for it to offer fresh concessions on sanctions relief, or it would adopt a “new way”.

Kim made clear to party officials that the North was willing to live under international sanctions to preserve its nuclear capability.

“The US is raising demands contrary to the fundamental interests of our state and is adopting [a] brigandish attitude,” KCNA cited him as saying.

Kim Jong-un vows ‘offensive measures’ to protect North Korea

Washington had conducted “joint military drills which its president personally promised to stop” and sent hi-tech military equipment to the South, Kim said, and had stepped up sanctions against the North.

“We can never sell our dignity,” he added, saying Pyongyang would “shift to a shocking actual action to make [the US] pay for the pains sustained by our people”.

North Korea carried out its sixth and most recent nuclear test in 2017, stating it had tested a thermonuclear weapon.

Kim also said Pyongyang “cannot give up the security of our future just for the visible economic results and happiness and comfort in reality now that hostile acts and nuclear threat against us are increasing”, according to the KCNA.

“This means that there won’t be any more denuclearisation talks between the North and the US,” said Professor Koh Yu-hwan of Dongguk University.

Trump and Kim talk before a 2019 meeting in the demilitarised zone. Photo: AFP

He said the North would instead continue building up its nuclear arsenal and possibly conduct new tests to develop submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

But it would stop short of test-launching ICBMs as this would be “too blatantly offensive”, Koh said.

Daniel R. DePetris, a fellow at Defence Priorities and a foreign policy columnist at The National Interest, also said such ICBM tests would alienate China and Russia at a time they were helping to prop up the North Korean economy and “carry its water” in the United Nations.

China and Russia had proposed to eliminate some of the North’s existing export quotas altogether and they were in no way interested in tightening the screws as long as the moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests remained in effect, he said.

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“The costs of alienating Pyongyang’s two large neighbours … are not worth the perceived benefits of sending an ICBM into the sky,” he wrote on North Korea analysis site 38North.

Professor Yang Moo-jin at the University of North Korean Studies said Pyongyang had made it clear that it would not engage in negotiations before the US normalised diplomatic ties with the North.

Professor Lim Eul-chul at Kyungnam University said Kim’s need to show tangible results in improving his people’s livelihoods this year – the North’s ruling communist party marks its 75th anniversary in October – would prevent him from provocative acts that could bring about tighter sanctions.

“The North will show off its capability to develop new strategic weapons but it won’t overstep the redline” of test-launching ICBMs, he said.

Additional reporting by Agence-France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters

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