Kim Jong-un threatens return to nuclear standoff with US

Kim Jong Un has issued a stark warning to the US over sanctions placed on North Korea, saying the country would have "no choice" but to act if Washington continues with its "one-sided demands".

After racing towards the goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. in 2017, Kim used last year's New Year speech to warn that "a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office" and order mass production of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.

South Korea - a key U.S. ally in Asia and the North's capitalist neighbor - praised Kim's speech, calling it a reaffirmation of Pyongyang's commitment to denuclearization.

In his New Year's Day address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un affirmed his country's commitment to denuclearization and called on improved relations with the United States and South Korea.

"I am always ready to sit down again with the U.S. president at any time and will make efforts to produce an outcome that the worldwide community would welcome", Mr Kim said. Trump's national security adviser John Bolton has said the meeting could take place in January or February. He also pointed to a potential second meeting with Trump.

But Kim called on Washington to take "corresponding" and "trustworthy" measures to reciprocate steps North Korea has already taken.

However, Kim's statement could prove problematic if there's ongoing evidence the North's nuclear and missile facilities continue to run.

"If the U.S. fails to carry out its promise to the world. and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure upon the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea], we might be compelled to explore a new path for defending the sovereignty of our country and supreme interests of our state", Kim said in the address.

"The United States should find out what the price for a cap on North Korea's nuclear program would be, as it would be an important and realistic objective", he said.

Kim's speech comes after year of diplomatic surprises by the reclusive leader, including an unprecedented summit with Trump and three meetings with Moon.

While the United States wants North Korea to unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons, Pyongyang has demanded more security guarantees from Washington.

Trump said in December that he expected to meet Kim again early next year, though no date has been set, while North Korea has not taken any clear steps towards dismantling its nuclear weapons programme.

For US officials expecting major concessions from Pyongyang, however, the speech may have been disappointing, according to Ko Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

Kim is seen as the newly developed intercontinental ballistic rocket Hwasong-15's test was successfully launched, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang Nov. 30, 2017.

North Korea's media have slammed the US for clinging to sanctions without honoring its promises to Pyongyang.

He also urged the USA to completely halt its suspended joint military exercises with ally South Korea. Instead of standing on a podium, Kim delivered a speech sitting on a couch in a Western-style room, illustrating an image of an approachable leader in a fireside chat.

The only way to resolve the long-running nuclear conundrum is for the USA and North Korea to agree on "stage-by-stage arrangements so there will be reciprocity in mutual concessions", Cheng believes.

Joshua Pollack of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies tweeted that Kim was insisting "the onus is now on the USA to deliver".

He added that if the two Koreas join forces, no sanctions or pressure from external forces would be able to stop their efforts to "open a new road of prosperity for the people". Washington has halted some large-scale military exercises with Seoul to aid negotiations but has called for strict global sanctions enforcement on impoverished North Korea until its full, verifiable denuclearisation.

Kim met US President Donald Trump to discuss denuclearisation in June 2018 but with few results so far.

Seoul and Pyongyang have pursued several reconciliation initiatives in recent months, including projects to upgrade the North's outdated rail infrastructure and reconnect it with the South.

These are the Gaeseong industrial park in North Korea, where South Korean factories use North Korean labor, and the Mount Geumgang resort in North Korea.

  • Rogelio Becker