SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said on Tuesday he is ready to meet US President Donald Trump anytime to achieve their common goal of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula, but warned he may have to take an alternative path if US sanctions and pressure against the country continued.
In his New Year address, Kim said denuclearisation is his “firm will” and suggested for the first time that North Korea would no longer produce nuclear weapons, but also urged Washington to take unspecified corresponding action to speed up the stalled diplomatic process.
North Korea might be “compelled to explore a new path” to defend its sovereignty if the United States “seeks to force something upon us unilaterally ... and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure,” Kim said in his nationally televised address.
The comments are likely to fuel growing scepticism over whether Pyongyang intends to give up the nuclear weapons programme that it has long considered essential to its security.
There was no immediate reaction from the US State Department, but South Korea’s presidential office welcomed Kim’s speech, saying it carried his “firm will” to advance relations with Seoul and Washington.
Kim and Trump vowed to work towards denuclearisation and build “lasting and stable” peace at their landmark summit in Singapore in June, but little progress has been made since.
Pyongyang has demanded Washington lift sanctions and declare an official end to the 1950-53 Korean War in response to its initial, unilateral steps toward denuclearisation, including dismantling its only known nuclear testing site and a key missile engine facility.
Those measures were in line with its resolve to “no longer make, use or spread” nuclear weapons, Kim said, indicating a possible moratorium on weapons production for the first time.
Although Pyongyang did not conduct nuclear or missile tests last year, satellite images have pointed to continued activity at the North’s related facilities.
US officials say those initial steps were not confirmed and can be easily reversed, and have called for strict sanctions enforcement on the impoverished country until full, verifiable disarmament. Washington halted some large-scale military exercises with Seoul to aid nuclear negotiations, but smaller drills continued.
Kim called for South Korea to “completely stop” joint military drills with the United States involving strategic assets, while multilateral negotiations among countries involved in the armistice agreement should be pursued to build a permanent peace regime.
The two Koreas technically remain at war because the conflict ended in a truce — signed by North Korea, the United States and China — not a peace treaty.
“Now that North and South Korea decided to take the path of peace and prosperity, we demand that joint military exercises with outside forces should no longer be allowed and deployment of war equipment such as foreign strategic assets should be completely stopped,” Kim said.
Analysts said Kim’s message sent clear signals that North Korea is willing to stay in talks with Washington and Seoul this year — but on its own terms.
“North Korea seems determined in 2019 to receive some sort of sanctions relief... The challenge, however, is will Team Trump be willing to back away from its position of zero sanctions relief?” said Harry Kazianis at the Washington-based Centre for the National Interest.
“Kim’s remarks seem to suggest his patience with America is wearing thin.”