North Korea's Kim Jong-un on December 31 2019. Picture: AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS
North Korea's Kim Jong-un on December 31 2019. Picture: AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS

Tokyo/Seoul — For months, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been threatening to take a “new path” in nuclear talks if US President Donald Trump doesn’t sweeten the deal by the end of the year. Now, the world might learn where that road leads.

Kim’s biggest annual speech — a televised New Year’s address to the North Korean people — will provide an opportunity hours after his self-imposed deadline passes to signal whether he intends to mend fences or escalate tensions. He has used the event to do both before: previewing a breakthrough intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch in 2017 and opening the door to talks with South Korea a year later.

This time, most signs point to escalation. North Korea has expressed increasing frustration with the American side since Trump walked out of their last formal summit in February. Kim resumed missile launches at a record-setting pace and repeatedly warned that his two-year freeze on ICBM and nuclear-bomb tests might be coming to an end.

Even as 2019 drew to a close, Kim was huddled behind closed doors with the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang for one of the most significant such meetings since he took power eight years ago. He urged the plenum “to take positive and offensive measures for fully ensuring the sovereignty and security of the country as required by the present situation,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Monday.

Twice before — in 2005 and 2013 — North Korea resumed provocations within months after scrapping self-imposed moratoriums

Party leaders were expected to discuss an “important document” as their next agenda item, the state-run news agency said on Tuesday, without elaborating. The time and format of the speech hasn’t been announced. Kim began last year’s address at 9am local time New Year’s Day — 7pm New Year’s Eve in Washington — and spoke for about half an hour.

“KCNA’s reporting of the party plenum suggests Pyongyang is planning a more hard-line approach next year, if Washington doesn’t present a satisfactory deal before the year is out,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser on Northeast Asia and nuclear policy at the International Crisis Group. Still, she cautioned: “We just don’t know the shape and size that provocations might take in 2020”

Speculation about what message Kim Jong-un might deliver in the televised address on Wednesday morning has run the gamut. He might offer stronger rhetoric while keeping the door open for talks; or he might declare negotiations over and signal an impending weapons test.

Any message will come against the politically charged backdrop of a US presidential election, in which Trump’s Democrat rivals are seeking to portray him as destabilising to global security and too accommodating towards autocrats. After three unprecedented face-to-face meetings, Trump has only got Kim to halt ICBM and nuclear tests and make a vague pledge to “work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.

In that time, Kim has continued to develop his weapons programme, something he might choose to highlight in his speech. This month, a top North Korean general boasted that a weapons test had strengthened its capacity “for reliably restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the US” — a pointed message that breaks with the regime’s recent practice of playing down its strategic weapons programme.

US secretary of state Michael Pompeo told Fox News that the US is closely watching events in North Korea. The Trump administration still believes that it “can find a path forward to convince the leadership in North Korea that their best course of action is to create a better opportunity for their people by getting rid of their nuclear weapons”, Pompeo said on Monday.

Suit and tie

Such speeches are largely directed at a domestic audience, including lengthy passages about development programmes that will be closely parsed for clues about the economic impact of the US-led sanctions regime. Mixed in are messages that appear crafted for international consumption, such as when Kim first issued his “new path” ultimatum on January 1 2019.

Any new path will probably look a lot like North Korea’s old path of provocations, taunts and defiance. With a small economy and few resources, there’s a limit to new initiatives it can undertake.

The key will be how much space Kim leaves for resuming the stalled nuclear talks with Trump, whose preference for personal diplomacy offers Kim opportunities that eluded past North Korean leaders. Go too far and he could anger Trump, alienate his allies in Beijing and return to a risky cycle of threats and counter-threats that alarmed the world in 2017.

Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said on Sunday that the administration is ready to respond should Kim fire additional long-range missiles or conduct further nuclear weapons tests. “If Kim takes that approach, we’ll be extraordinarily disappointed and we’ll demonstrate that disappointment,” O’Brien said on ABC’s This Week.

One intermediate option for Kim is ending his moratorium on the tests of nuclear bombs and ICBMs that can deliver them to the US. Twice before — in 2005 and 2013 — North Korea resumed provocations within months after scrapping self-imposed moratoriums.

He might also announce the resumption of North Korea’s “civilian” space programme — considered a provocation by the US because it encompasses technology needed for ICBMs.

Kim has been trying to portray North Korea as a normal country and may take steps to increase the exposure of his reclusive state on the global stage. Whatever the rhetoric, the North Korean leader has little incentive to return to the days when Trump was threatening to “totally destroy” the country. Kim is unlikely to find a better US negotiating partner than the current US president.

“His comments at the ongoing meeting emphasise the security of his regime, which hints at what he’ll be prioritising in his New Year’s speech,” said Choi Soon-mi, who researches North Korean social and economic affairs at Ajou University’s Institute of Unification. “He will likely leave doors to talks open for talks with the US, but with conditions such as a shift in attitude, because he still has a personal relationship with Trump that hasn’t been broken yet.”