This is a follow-up post to my article on The National Interest.
In that article, I argued that regardless of COVID-19, North Korea would continue to launch missiles. This is because 1) Pyongyang uses these launches to test their missile capabilities, 2) it keeps them relevant in the world (particularly the US), and 3) the launches are used to make countries accept them as a de facto nuclear state.
I’d like to focus on point 2 – it keeps them relevant in the world. Kim has resorted to missile launches to constantly remind the US that North Korea poses a threat and must be taken seriously.
Therefore, it is interesting to see how this rhetoric towards the US has changed throughout the years (2016, 2018, 2019, 2020). The year 2018 marked a significant change in rhetoric, while 2020 saw Kim revert to a more bellicose tone.
While these speeches do not convey the entire picture, it definitely serves as a starting point to understand Pyongyang’s intentions for the year.
Overall, there was little said about the United States in the speech. One could assume that Pyongyang had decided to wait for a new leader to emerge in the 2016 presidential election.
The main point was that North Korea was the victim of US-South Korea aggression.
“The U.S. and South Korean war maniacs are conducting large-scale military exercises aimed at a nuclear war against the DPRK one after another every year; this is precipitating a critical situation in the Korean peninsula and throwing serious obstacles in the way of improving inter-Korean relations.“
So clearly, the US was getting in the way of improving inter-Korean relations. Here is some of the usual rhetoric from North Korea about US aggression in the region:
“Today the peninsula has become the hottest spot in the world and a hotbed of nuclear war owing to the U.S. aggressive strategy for the domination of Asia and its reckless moves for a war against the DPRK.“
Interestingly, it is the US that has “ignored” Pyongyang’s demand for replacing the temporary peace agreement (Armistice Agreement) with a permanent peace pact. Kim goes as far as to say that the US has staged a “human rights racket” against the country to uphold its hostile policy toward them.
In 2018, the Panmunjom Declaration (April 27) and Pyongyang Joint Declaration (September 18) were signed by Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in.
It was also the year that the United States and North Korea almost went to war.
At the end of 2017, experts in the US saw a 50-50 chance of war. Senator Lindsey Graham said there was a 30% chance of the “military option” even if unprovoked; 70% if North Korea conducted another test. The “fire and fury” comment by Trump also fueled rumors that the US was readying itself for a war with North Korea.
Against this backdrop, the US is mentioned 12 times in the new year speech: 9x as the US, 1x as the enemy, 1x as an imperialist, and 1x as an aggressor.
“Our country’s nuclear forces are capable of thwarting & countering any nuclear threats from the US and constitute a powerful deterrent that prevents it from starting an adventurous war.”
Kim even went as far as to say that the US would not dare start a war against North Korea. This may show how serious Pyongyang had taken Trump’s comments in the summer of 2017. There is an awful lot more from Kim boasting his country’s nuclear deterrent.
He also threatened that the nuclear button was always on his desk; Pyongyang had developed missiles capable of reaching eastern the eastern coast of the US.
“The whole of its mainland is within the range of our nuclear strike and the nuclear button is on my office desk all the time; the United States needs to be clearly aware that this is not merely a threat but a reality.“
Kim suddenly takes a sharp turn blaming the US for aggravating tensions in the Korean Peninsula (much like they did in 2016). He then reaches out to South Korea in an attempt to jumpstart reunification talks.
“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.“
One could say this eventually worked out, as Moon ended up extending an olive branch to Kim in the form of the 2018 Winter Olympics and the Panmunjom Declaration.
Perhaps in anticipation of the Trump-Kim summit, there are less provocative statements in this year’s speech. In fact, it is a remarkable departure from the previous year’s speech threatening a nuclear war.
However, there is a rather disturbing statement at the end that wasn’t in the 2018 speech. We can see Pyongyang’s intent to escalate things if talks fail.
First, Kim begins by demanding an end to US-ROK joint military exercises. He also demands that the “introduction of war equipment including strategic assets from outside should be completely suspended.”
These are strategically beneficial to Pyongyang considering their number one fear: US invasion. By ending exercises and ensuring no American weapons are brought into South Korea, Kim is securing his country before signing any deal with the US.
Kim praises the first Trump-Kim summit which happened last year.
“The historic, first-ever DPRK-US summit meeting and talks brought about a dramatic turn in the bilateral relationship which was the most hostile on the earth and made a great contribution to ensuring peace and security of the Korean peninsula and the region.“
In anticipation of the second summit, Kim promises to establish a new bilateral relationship that builds a “lasting and durable peace regime and advances toward denuclearization.” However, there is little mention as to what that would entail.
Probably the most interesting turn in rhetoric was this part:
“As evidenced by the reality of north-south relations that made rapid progress last year, nothing is impossible to a willing heart, and dialogue partners will reach the destinations that are beneficial to each other without fail if they put forward fair proposals on the principle of recognizing and respecting each other by abandoning their dogged insistence broadmindedly and conduct negotiations with a proper stand and the will to settle issues.“
Clearly, spirits are high and the hope is that North Korea can finally end US presence in the Korean Peninsula. Another aspect of this dramatic turn was the need for Kim to cement his international status as a rational leader. By seemingly agreeing to negotiate denuclearization, Kim gained the trust (albeit marginal) of the international community.
While he does that, Kim also ensures there is an “insurance policy” in place.
“But if the United States does not keep the promise it made in the eyes of the world, and out of miscalculation of our people’s patience, it attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.“
In hindsight, this new way was the development of new weapons, which Pyongyang kept testing even as they negotiated a deal with the US.
2 thoughts on “Examining Kim Jong-un’s New Year Speeches”
I have no clue with Kim literally has a nuclear button on his desk. But if it were me, there’s no way I’m putting it there. Even with a neatly organized desk, I guarantee you I’d press it accidentally within a week.
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It’s actually pretty crazy to imagine that Trump was also threatening to nuke North Korea with a “button” on his desk (which I imagine isn’t on his desk but in some sort of really secure briefcase or something). He would be tempted to press it if it was on his desk.