Kim Jong Un's New Year's Day message: Make North Korea great again

Kim Jong Un is a man with a plan, something he loves to remind us of every Jan. 1. In a highly anticipated, and now annual, New Year’s Day address, the North Korean dictator laid out his agenda for the coming year. Although the speech followed a pattern he has used in past addresses — that is, making the economy a focal point of his legacy — Kim made it clear what he wants from America in 2019: A negotiated settlement on his nuclear weapons program, or else.

As Kim put it, if the Trump administration insists on “one-sided demands,” he will have “no choice but to defend our country’s sovereignty and supreme interest, and find a new way to settle peace on our peninsula.” We should understand the context of that statement.

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Kim views the current U.S. position on his nuclear program — that he should give up his atomic arsenal and long-range missiles for the promise of sanctions relief once fully completed (something that could take years) — as impossible. North Korea has enshrined its nuclear weapons as part of its constitution, and that is the communist nation’s only real achievement since its founding in the late 1940s. It simply won’t hand them over in exchange for a promise.

Above all else, what the North Korean leader wants is security. Nuclear weapons, even at a cost of crippling sanctions, provide that security. However, Kim knows that, long term, he can’t rule over his nation of 25 million people with an iron fist and prison camps forever; history tells him that no dictatorship can last in such a brutal manner. If Kim is going to rule for decades, he will need to adopt some large-scale economic reforms.

That’s why his speech largely focused on the economy, with lots of pictures weaved throughout the presentation to ensure the world did not miss his message. In effect, he shares the same goal as President Donald Trump: he wants to make North Korea great again. And Kim understands clearly that someday cashing in his nuclear weapons are the best way to do that.

But Kim is no fool. He won’t trade in the ultimate security guarantee for just a promise of sanctions relief — he needs to know he will get something close to that security in exchange. That means he needs a guarantee that the United States won’t cancel out the agreement, which is a big concern, considering America’s track record of late: backing out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accords, and the Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF) Treaty.  

The good news is there is a blueprint for breaking the current impasse with North Korea. In 2005, the United States, North Korea, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea pledged to a roadmap to end the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The Joint Statement committed North Korea to “abandoning all nuclear weapons” and “returning at an early date to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards.”

America made security guarantees to the North, pledged to work toward diplomatic relations, and “negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” But perhaps most important of all, the six nations agreed to take coordinated steps to implement the consensus in a phased manner, in line with the principle of “commitment for commitment, action for action.”

Kim wants sanctions relief but has no intention of getting on all fours and surrendering his intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and hydrogen bombs — nuclear powers don’t do that. The path forward for lasting peace is clear: A phased denuclearization, wherein Kim slowly winds down his nuclear program in exchange for matching sanctions relief, such as the “action for action” stated above. North Korea, over the past few months, has been asking to resume such an approach, which Washington has ignored.

Here is why we should be concerned about Kim’s “or else” stance, and it isn’t that more missile and nuclear tests could push America towards military action.

Kim has a better plan: seeking more help from China. Chinese Leader Xi Jinping appears set to visit North Korea soon and Kim could make the case that Washington is being unreasonable and Beijing should completely abandon sanctions. Considering that over 90 percent of North Korean exports flow through China, Beijing has been the one to enforce Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy. Why enforce sanctions on North Korea when America will make no concessions on trade? Kim’s thinking seems straightforward: Why start missile testing again when he could make common cause with a rising superpower and have China help rebuild his nation’s economy?

Thankfully, 2019 apparently won’t be filled with nuclear threats and more rhetoric between the United States and North Korea. But the North could outfox America, keep its nuclear weapons arsenal and get all the economic assistance it needs elsewhere. Your move, President TrumpDonald John TrumpImpeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent Feds say marijuana ties could prevent immigrants from getting US citizenship Trump approval drops to 2019 low after Mueller report's release: poll MORE.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.