North Korean leader Kim Jong Un started 2018 much the same way he ended 2017: with harsh threats to use a literal “nuclear button” on his desk to hit the US if war breaks out.
But there was more to Kim’s New Year’s Day speech than his threat to strike anywhere in the US with a nuclear bomb, and it could signal a major change in the Trump administration’s nuclear standoff with North Korea.
That’s because Kim’s speech also called for new talks with South Korea, a diplomatic offer that could make it more difficult for the US president to continue his own military threats against Pyongyang.
Kim offered to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics, set to begin in February in South Korea, and called for official, high-level talks with his neighbor to the South.
“I am willing to send a delegation and take necessary measures, and I believe that the authorities of the North and South can urgently meet to discuss the matter,” Kim said.
North Korea and South Korea haven’t held official talks in two years, and during that time North Korea has made huge advances in its weapons programs.
Like many of Kim’s recent speeches, the new address involved plenty of boasting about his nuclear arsenal and his plan to expand it in the coming year. But that was counterbalanced by Kim’s talk of taking steps to “ease the acute military tensions between the North and the South.”
John Delury, an international relations scholar at Yonsei University in Seoul, told the Washington Post that Kim’s language toward South Korea was “more promising” than expected in its openness to diplomacy.
Those potential talks pose a thorny challenge for the Trump administration, which has taken a hardline approach to dealing with Kim and insisted that he fulfill preconditions that involve curbing his nuclear program before sitting down for negotiations. If these talks between North Korea and South Korea really started to go somewhere, the US could be forced to soften its demands of Kim — or split from its ally.
While making diplomatic overtures to South Korea, Kim also threatened the US with nuclear war
South Korea appears eager to embrace Kim’s overtures. On Tuesday, South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon proposed high-level talks between North Korean and South Korean officials in Panmunjom, a village that sits on the border between the two countries.
If talks between North Korea and South Korea do in fact happen, it would mark the first official conversations between the countries in two years. It would also be South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s first foray into talks with North Korea.
Moon, who took office in May, has pushed hard for dialogue with the North and advocated for policies designed to reduce the chance of conflict with Pyongyang. He recently asked the US to postpone its annual joint military drills with South Korea until after the Olympics. The games are set to start February 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea — roughly 50 miles from the border with North Korea. South Korea wants to avoid prompting North Korea to do anything provocative, like conduct a ballistic missile test, during the games.
Though Kim assumed a more diplomatic stance toward South Korea in his speech, he saved his harsher language for the US, saying that the country should “know that the whole territory of the US is within the range of our nuclear strike and a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office, and this is just a reality, not a threat.”
The bigger issue at stake is the possibility that Kim is sowing the seeds of division between the US and South Korea.
While Moon has an “anytime, anywhere” stance on talks with Kim, the US has generally pushed for preconditions for talks with North Korea, calling for it to give up its nuclear weapons before talks even start in November. And Trump has also repeatedly undermined Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s attempts to start diplomatic talks, tweeting that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” in October.
“The timing of this overture, combined with [Kim’s] newly declared capability to strike the United States, is shifting the calculus,’’ Robert Litwak, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, told the New York Times. “Kim sees a rare chance here to take the side of the South Koreans, against President Trump.”
If South Korea, a vital US ally, gets immersed in substantive talks with North Korea, the Trump administration could to be forced to soften its position or diverge from its ally on North Korea policy.
So far, the Trump administration has indicated that it will not be backing down from its own stance on talks.
“North Korea can talk with anyone they want, but the US is not going to recognize it or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told reporters in New York on Tuesday.
But administration officials are also saying they’re not concerned about the emergence of a US-South Korea rift. “Kim Jong Un may be trying to drive a wedge of some sort ... I can assure that will not happen,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters on Tuesday.
Trump himself sounds a bit more ambivalent. “Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not — we will see!” he tweeted Tuesday.