What Kim Jong-un's New Year Address Means for US-NK and Inter-Korean Relations
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year address provided important indications of the possible future direction of inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations. In terms of inter-Korean relations, Kim Jong-un has expressed support for reopening the Kaesong industrial complex and the Mount Kumgang tourist resort, although this is not possible without removing sanctions.
He also called on the people of both North Korea and South Korea to work together to implement the terms of last year’s summit declarations. Kim also reiterated his goal of developing North Korea’s economy, and placed more emphasis on increasing foreign trade and investments. This is likely to result in or at least elicit further cooperation with South Korea.
There is more uncertainty when it comes to U.S.-North Korea relations. A good sign is that Kim Jong-un stated that he is willing to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump. Also, Kim continued to emphasize denuclearization in his speech, although the U.S. and North Korea still do not have a common definition of denuclearization. However, despite these positive elements, the New Year address still hints at possible tensions with Washington.
Kim repeated his commitment to denuclearization and meeting with Trump, buthe also firmly cautioned that he was prepared to take alternative action in the event that the U.S. does not reduce pressure on North Korea. North Korea did not conduct any further nuclear tests in 2018, but Kim clearly stated thatfurther denuclearization would not take place if there is no corresponding action from the U.S. towards the same end. Thus, while the possibility of a second summit appears to be high, it still remains to be seen if there will be major progress towards denuclearization and a declaration to end the Korean War.
Latest Updates on Inter-Korean Relations
In his New Year address, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un stressed the need for the improvement of inter-Korean relations and acknowledged the recent inter-Korean agreement that aimed to ease military tensions. South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration welcomed Kim Jong-un’s New Year address as a sign of his commitment to improve both inter-Korean relations and United States-North Korea relations.
The ruling Democratic Party of Korea saw the speech as a sign of optimism for U.S- North Korea talks and pledged to work with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to improve inter-Korean relations. The opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) were less optimistic stating that Kim Jong-Un’s speech indicates no change in his position towards denuclearization which calls for incentives in return, such as lifting of sanctions.
The LKP’s spokesperson also said that Kim Jong-un’s call to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tour is impossible without substantial progress in denuclearization. On Jan 3rd, 2019, National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang said that there is no urgency in holding a parliamentary summit with their North Korean counterparts which has been discussed for a long time.
In other updates, on Jan 4, 2019, officials of both North Korea and South Korea met at their joint liaison office, their first meeting since Kim Jong-un’s New Year address. The meeting discussed cross-border issues and promised to work together to advance inter-Korean relations. The joint liaison office located in Kaesong, North Korea was established in September and hosts weekly meetings between South Korea’s Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung and his North Korean counterpart, Jon Chong-su.
In order to succeed in implementation of a recent inter-Korean military accord that would allow unarmed border guards to walk across the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), South Korea’s military is pushing for more talks with their North Korean counterparts to sign a joint agreement regarding operations of implementing the accord, such as a surveillance system. South Korea also wants to form a joint committee with North Korea to excavate war remains in the DMZ.
The Trajectory of South Korea-Japan Relations in 2019
2019 will be a crucial year for Japan-South Korea bilateral relations. Though 2018 featured some instances of cooperation between Japan and South Korea, tensions and distrust also grew as historical issues returned to the forefront. Heading into the new year, both positive and negative changes seem possible for the relations between these two countries.
The first half of 2018 indicated a positive trajectory for South Korea-Japan relations. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Feb 9 2018, before the ceremony took place, to discuss North Korea policy. This trend continued into May, when leaders of Japan, South Korea, and China held a summit in Tokyo to discuss issues ranging from regional stability to trade policy.
However, despite these indications of stronger ties, historical issues strained the development of closer relations. In late 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies, Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, to pay reparations to the families of Korean victims of forced labor during World War II, despite Japanese claims that a 1965 treaty settled the issue. In addition, South Korea dismantled a fund established by Japan in 2015 as part of an apology to “comfort women,” women forced to work in Japanese military brothels in World War II.
This heightened importance of historical issues could belie greater problems on the horizon for Japan-South Korea relations in 2019. Recently, the two countries have exchanged criticisms and condemnations in response to Japan’sclaim that a South Korean destroyer locked its targeting radar to a Japanese aircraft in Dec 2018. South Korea responded on Jan 2nd, 2019, stating that the Japanese plane flew too low.
These events amount to a muddled, confused picture of the future of South Korea-Japan relations. Though Kang Kyung-wha and Taro Kono, the foreign ministers of South Korean and Japan respectively, have agreed to aim for “future-oriented” ties between the two countries, not all are so optimistic. Some experts forecast a growth in anti-Japanese sentiment within South Korea, as 2019 will mark the 100th anniversary of the March First Movement, a Korean push for independence from Japanese rule of the Korean peninsula. Though government officials have made outward claims of striving for unity and cooperation, 2019 will test the strength of relations between Japan and South Korea.
This Week in History: North Korea Withdraws from Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty
On January 10, 2003, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but pledged its nuclear program will be used for peaceful purposes. North Korea claimed that its actions are due to latest provocations by the United States hostility and threat of nuclear action. North Korea also blamed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of collaborating with the United States on the alleged hostility.
North Korea: Prospects for 2019 and beyond
Hosted by Korea Risk Group
9:00AM- 3:00PM, Thursday, January 17, 2019
House of Sweden
2900 K St NW,
Washington, DC 20007
Advancing the U.S.-Korea Economic Agenda
9:00 AM- 10:30 AM, Wednesday, January 23, 2019
Asia Society Policy Institute
1779 Massachusetts Avenue Northwest
Washington, DC 20036
The Soh Jaipil Circle on Contemporary Korean Affairs: “North Korea in 2019: More of the same, or a historic opportunity?”
Hosted by GW Institute for Korean Studies
4:00 PM- 5:30 PM, Wednesday January 23, 2019
Elliott School of International Affairs Room B17,
The George Washington University
1957 E St. NW,
Washington, DC 20052