Last year Kim Jong Un shocked the world with the unexpected speed of his nuclear missile development, his brutal crackdown on his enemies, and suspicions that he ordered the assassination of his half-brother with a chemical nerve agent.
This year, the North Korean leader is opening January with a diplomatic offensive – but that doesn’t mean a change of strategy.
North Korean officials met their southern counterparts on Tuesday (Jan 9) for the first such talks in two years. The outcome was an agreement to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics being hosted by South Korea next month as well as to hold military-to-military talks.
Openness to dialogue is, of course, a mildly positive signal. None of that, however, means North Korea has any intention of slowing its drive for ever more powerful nuclear missiles and warheads, specifically those that would allow it to hit the United States.
Instead, Pyongyang appears to be pursuing a deliberate and increasingly successful strategy to drive a wedge between Washington and South Korea.
It’s a move that complicates the position of the Trump Administration, potentially making direct US military action against the Kim regime a bit more difficult.
Seoul and Washington are longtime allies, with a formal mutual defence treaty dating back to the Korean ceasefire of 1953. The continuing presence of US troops in South Korea is considered vital for the South’s survival.
At the same time, however, they have different priorities.
The Trump Administration has made it clear that its most important goal is to stop North Korea acquiring the ability to strike the US mainland. South Korea, in contrast, is already within striking distance of the North’s massive conventional, nuclear and suspected chemical and biological arsenal.
Largely at the behest of the US, South Korean negotiators made “denuclearising” the Korean Peninsula – essentially, disarming North Korea – a key part of their diplomatic offer.
North Korea said this was not on the table, and not possible. But its chief negotiator was also brutally clear – such weapons existed in the North Korean arsenal to be aimed at the US, not South Korean “brethren”. Calling them “brothers”,..even though North Korea has been torturing and murdering South Korean’s for decades.