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North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un Kicks Off New Year With Address And A Warning To U.S.


Sitting in a leather chair in a wood-paneled room, North Korea's leader kicked off the new year with an address to his nation and a warning to the U.S. Kim Jong Un said he's willing to meet with President Trump a second time but threatened that if international sanctions against North Korea continue, he'll have no choice but to take a new path.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us now from Seoul to talk about what this could mean. And, Anthony, since President Trump met Kim Jong Un in Singapore for that historic summit last year in June, the nuclear issue has been somewhat stalled. So can you tell us what new information you heard in Kim's speech?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Actually, most of the speech was not about the nuclear issue. It was for a domestic audience, news about the economy. But he did repeat his pledge to denuclearize and mend fences with the U.S. Now, let's hear one of the more optimistic, upbeat parts of his speech.



KUHN: "It is our party and republic's unchanging position and my unwavering will," he said, "to establish a new relationship between the DPRK and the U.S. that meets the demands of the new century and to establish a permanent, stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula and move towards complete denuclearization." By DPRK, he meant the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which is its formal name.

Analysts point out that there was actually something significant elsewhere in the speech. He said that North Korea would stop building atomic bombs, basically cap his country's nuclear program. But as you mentioned, there was also this warning that if the U.S. tries to sanction North Korea into submission or just runs out their patience, then all bets are off, and there could be a return to confrontation.

CORNISH: You mentioned a warning. Did Kim provide any specifics of what he wants from President Trump?

KUHN: I think it's pretty clear that he mostly just wants the meeting at this point, and we know this because North Korea has refused to engage in working-level talks with the U.S., particularly Mike Pompeo and U.S. special envoy Steve Biegun have basically been shut out. So analysts believe that North Korea is betting everything on a second summit with Trump, where they will try to manipulate him into making more concessions.

And the - North Korea's point has been pretty consistent in past months. They say, look, since the summit, we have dismantled some of our nuclear and missile testing facilities, and now we expect the U.S. to reciprocate by providing security guarantees and easing sanctions. The U.S. wants to start off as a first move by providing an inventory of all its nuclear assets, but North Korea refuses to do that.

CORNISH: What about the relationship with South Korea? The two leaders met, I think, about three times in the past year. Did Kim Jong Un say anything about South Korea in his speech?

KUHN: Yes. He talked about continuing the thaw in relations with South Korea. Now, at times, the U.S. has seemed nervous that this sort of inter-Korean rapprochement is getting out too far ahead of the nuclear issue. But lately, they seem to have had a change of heart. They seem to have decided that it doesn't really cost them anything at this point. There's only so far they can go with those sanctions still in place. And they hope that this will just improve the atmosphere and maybe make talks a little bit easier.

And that is why the U.S. gave its blessing to last week's groundbreaking on a project to connect railways between the two Koreas. And the U.S. says it will try to ensure that the sanctions that are in place do not prevent U.S. aid groups from delivering humanitarian assistance to the North.

CORNISH: It's interesting. I understand Kim talked about an end to U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises. And at the same time, the U.S. and South Korea failed to meet a deadline to renew a funding agreement for U.S. forces in South Korea, right? So there's this little dispute going on between the U.S. and South Korea. How does that affect this conversation?

KUHN: Well, these - the two sides were supposed to come up with a new agreement before the old one expired last night. But the U.S. reportedly wants South Korea to increase its contribution by 50 percent, and Seoul says no. The Trump administration wants all U.S. allies to pay more, and it's focusing on South Korea first. The South Koreans are also somewhat unnerved by the resignation of Defense Secretary Mattis because he was a consistent advocate for the alliance. It's not clear that the U.S. Congress would allow any sort of pullout of U.S. troops, but any sign that the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea is wavering has Seoul very concerned.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Thank you for your reporting.

KUHN: Sure thing, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.