By Kanga Kong, Hooyeon Kim
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for urgent talks with South Korea to make the Winter Olympics next month a success even while repeating claims that he could strike the U.S. with a nuclear bomb if necessary.
In an annual New Year’s day speech, Kim said that “we sincerely hope the games will be successful.” He said that both Koreas should seek to resolve problems among themselves rather than seek help from outside of the region.
“It’s about time that the North and the South sit down and seriously discuss how to improve inter-Korean relations by ourselves and dramatically open up,” Kim said on Monday. Referring to the Olympics, he said later: “We’re willing to take necessary steps including sending our delegation, and for this, the authorities from the North and South could urgently meet.”
President Moon Jae-in welcomed Kim’s comments and repeated that South Korea is ready for talks without conditions, spokesman Park Soo-hyun said.
“The Blue House will cooperate closely with the international community to address the North Korean nuclear issue in a peaceful manner, while sitting down with the North to find the resolution to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and bring peace,” Park said.
The remarks raise hopes for dialogue after months of tensions that have seen President Donald Trump’s administration warn of military action to prevent Kim from threatening the U.S. with nuclear weapons. The United Nations Security Council last month approved its strongest sanctions yet on North Korea — a move that Pyongyang described as an “act of war.”
Moon had repeatedly called for North Korea to join the Olympic games in Pyeongchang, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the North Korean border. Since taking office in May, he has pushed for dialogue with Kim’s regime — a shift from the conservative government that he replaced.
Kim’s apparent olive branch risks creating tensions in the U.S.-South Korea alliance, according to Yun Duk-min, a former chancellor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
“With South Korea also participating in the international sanctions campaign, it’s not easy for Moon to come forward and accept it before North Korea shows sincerity with denuclearization,” Yun said. “Inter-Korean relations will start to improve more fundamentally only if there’s a change in the U.S.-North Korea dynamics.”
Kim’s speech shows North Korea sees the Olympics as a way to improve ties with its southern neighbor, the state-run Institute for National Security Strategy, which is affiliated with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, said in an emailed statement.
North Korea also views its participation in the games as a way to help the South Korean government, the institute said. In return, it may ask South Korea to lift its economic sanctions, resume economic cooperation and provide humanitarian aid.
While reaching out to South Korea, Kim also repeated claims that he could hit anywhere in the U.S. with a nuclear weapon, and called for mass production of nuclear warheads. He said North Korea’s nuclear deterrent was “irreversible” and that it would prevent Trump from starting a war.
“It’s reality, not a threat, that the nuclear button is always on my desk,” Kim said. “The U.S. can never start a war against myself and our nation now.”
Asked about the comment, Trump said: “We’ll see, we’ll see.”
Kim’s Jan. 1 speeches have previously set the direction for tensions on the Korean peninsula. A year ago, he said North Korea was in its “last stage” of preparations to test fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, and he ended up firing three of them.
War of Words
Besides those tests, North Korea also detonated its sixth and most powerful nuclear device and fired more than a dozen rockets. South Korea assessed that the most recent launch in late November of a new ICBM — its largest yet — could potentially reach Washington, though additional analysis was needed to determine whether it was capable of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Last year was also notable for a war of words between Kim and Trump, who repeatedly threatened military action to stop the rogue state’s nuclear program. Trump has nicknamed Kim “Little Rocket Man” and referred to his weight, while the North Korean leader has called the U.S. president a “dotard” and warned of the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”
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