North Korea is taking an aggressivestance in its statements directed at the United States, which areextraordinary in their attribution to specific figures in the NorthKorean regime. This marks the first time North Korea has issued aseries of statements aimed at the United States in such a shortperiod of time, suggesting that the Kim Jong-un Administration may begoing "all-in" in a bid for negotiations with PresidentTrump. However, since none of these remarks have been reported in theRodong Sinmun newspaper available to the North Korean populace, itappears that even Pyongyang is unclear on what direction US-NorthKorea relations may take.
Following the breakdown of theworking-level consultations between the United States and North Koreaheld on October 5 in Stockholm, on October 24 Kim Kye-gwan, Adviserto the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People'sRepublic of Korea, described Chairman Kim Jong-un's relationship withPresident Trump as "special." Meanwhile, he also levelledcriticism at the United States, noting that "DPRK policy makersof the US administration are still hostile to the DPRK for no reason,preoccupied with the Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice,"yet pressed the Trump administration for compromise, adding that "Wewant to see how wisely the US will pass the end of the year."Kim Kye-gwan, who was behind these remarks, is a prominent figure inNorth Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs who previously served asthe contact point for negotiations with the United States during thefirst North Korean nuclear crisis in the 1990s and during theSix-Party Talks in the 2000s.
On October 27, Kim Yong-chol, Chairmanof the Korea Asia Pacific Peace Committee, stated that "The USis seriously mistaken if it is of the idea of passing off in peacethe end of this year, by exploiting the close personal relationsbetween its president and (Kim Jong-un) for the delaying tactics."Warning that "there is a limit to everything," he demandeda change in the US’ attitude. Kim Yong-chol served as head of NorthKorea's United Front Department until the US-North Korea summit inHanoi at the end of February this year, and has been the point man onnegotiations with the United States.
On November 14, Kim Yong-chol againdirected remarks at the United States. This was to some degree anappraisal of Defence Secretary Mark Esper's comments the previous daythat the United States was open to "adjusting" the scope ofjoint military exercises between the US and South Korean forces.However, Kim warned that "if this ends up with our naiveinterpretation and the hostile provocation is committed eventually toincite us, we will be compelled to react with shocking punishmentthat would be difficult for the US to cope with."
That same day, roving ambassador KimMyong-gil, who heads up working-level consultations between NorthKorea and the United States, also gave a statement, divulging thatthe US-side had communicated its intention to hold discussions inDecember through a third country, while also remarking that "Iintuitively feel that the US is not ready to give a satisfactoryanswer to us and its proposal for dialogue with us is a trick to earntime." This represents North Korea's wish for the United Statesside to offer a response and solution.
Kim Kye-gwan's message on November 18was made in response to Trump's "See you soon!" Tweetdirected at Kim Jong-un the previous day. Kim Kye-gwan remarked thatNorth Korea was "no longer interested in such talks that bringnothing to us," and emphasised that "we will no longer giftthe US president with something he can boast of."
On November 19, the following day, KimYong-chol offered a statement on the decision by the United Statesand South Korea to postpone joint aerial drills. After demanding thatthe drills be stopped "once and for all" rather than beingmerely put off, he concluded that "the US should not dream ofthe negotiations for denuclearisation before dropping its hostilepolicy," countering that "it will be possible to consultthe denuclearisation only when confidence-building between the DPRKand the US. goes first and all the threats to the security anddevelopment of the DPRK are removed."
On December 3, Deputy Foreign MinisterLee Tae-sung released a statement saying that "All that can bedone now is the choice of the USA, and it depends only on the USAwhich Christmas present they will choose for themselves."
With these statements, North Korea isrepeatedly confirming that the ball is in Washington's court, whileurging compromise. The series of claims made by North Korea remainunchanged from the immediate aftermath of the Hanoi talks, and areclearly designed to take advantage of Trump as he prepares for nextyear's presidential election.
While all of these statements bear thenames of policy makers who are well known to the United States, inNorth Korea no important statement can be made without the approvalof its supreme leader.
This series of statements mixing bothflexible and tough approaches betray Kim Jong-un's mixed feelings.For Kim, who will likely hold on to power in the long-term, currentcircumstances with Trump as his counterpart represent an opportunity,but the North cannot very well make concessions to the United Statesof its own accord. What we can take from the unprecedented aggressivenature of North Korea's statements is that Pyongyang's desperationnot to repeat its failure in Hanoi is palpable.
(Atsuhito Isozaki is Associate Professor at Keio University, Japan.)