Kim Jong-un is giving up on hopes that US President Donald Trump will lift sanctions anytime soon.
Alongside the North Korean leader’s latest sabre-rattling this week was a stunning admission: Efforts to engage the US had failed. Kim’s plan now is to find a way to survive under crushing economic sanctions while building an even stronger nuclear deterrent to force Washington to compromise.
“We can never sell our dignity, which we have so far defended as something as valuable as our own lives, in the hope of a brilliant transformation," Kim said, according to excerpts from an unusual 7 hour speech this week to party leaders in Pyongyang. “The DPRK-US standoff, which has lasted for generations, has now been compressed into a clear standoff between self-reliance and sanctions."
While Kim blamed the crisis on what he called American treachery, his remarks were an implicit acknowledgment that his decision to play down his nuclear programme in a bid for sanctions relief didn’t work.
North Korea still languishes under the same international blockade it did in 2018, when Kim announced he was prioritizing the economy over weapons development, halted missile tests and held the first of three unprecedented meetings with Trump.
Kim’s latest plan sounds a lot like a return to his “Byungjin Line" of 2013, which called for paying equal attention to developing North Korea’s economy and solidifying its status as a nuclear-armed power.
This time, Kim made party leaders pledge to carry out a policy called “the offensive for frontal breakthrough," a strategy that he said would require political, diplomatic and military action. The nation must “tighten our belts," he said.
The shift illustrates the limits of Kim’s historic diplomatic gains, including more than a dozen meetings with heads of state and government since making his first trip abroad in March 2018. Although his rekindled ties with Cold War-era allies such as China and Russia have provided some promise of tourist cash, food aid and diplomatic support, he can’t escape the most biting American, South Korean and United Nations sanctions without Washington’s blessing.
“This was Kim clearly rejecting the Trump administration’s proposal offering North Korea a bright future for its economy," said Shin Bum-chul, who studies inter-Korean relations at the Asan Institute for Policy studies and is a former researcher in South Korea’s defence ministry. “Instead, it’s seen as North Korea deciding to strive for independent economic growth, which would serve as grounds for becoming a legitimate nuclear state."
Kim’s new military threats—declaring the end of his testing freeze and pledging to “shock" the US over sanctions could also jeopardize what diplomatic space he has secured for himself.
Besides provoking Trump, Kim could anger Chinese President Xi Jinping if he raises the threat of another war on the Korean Peninsula or conducts tests that send radiation wafting across the border.
Kim had already begun to escalate tensions since Trump walked out of their last formal summit in February, carrying out a record-breaking barrage of ballistic missile tests last year. His speech promised to soon debut a “new strategic weapon," which non-proliferation experts say could be anything from a nuclear-armed submarine to a more advanced form of intercontinental ballistic missile.