North Korea did not launch a long-range missile over Christmas or New Year’s Day. Instead, it released a summary of the 5th Plenary Meeting, including a speech by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The threat of a “new strategic weapon” notwithstanding, the meeting was notable primarily for its restrained nature. The question is whether the United States will also exercise restraint in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program, rather than needlessly escalate tension as it recently did in the Middle East by assassinating Iran’s top general Qassim Suleimani.
North Korea’s December meeting served two purposes. For its domestic audience, it was an opportunity to reaffirm North Korea’s twin focus on economic development and national defense. Much attention was paid to ways to strengthen North Korea’s economy, which is suffering from “manifold hardships” requiring a “rearrange[ment] of the economic foundation.” For the international audience, the plenary meeting was designed to instill a sense of urgency for nuclear negotiations to resume. Kim said there is “no ground” for North Korea to continue its moratorium on nuclear tests and inter-continental ballistic missile tests absent a less hostile stance by the United States. The message was clear: The longer we wait, the greater the risk for confrontation between North Korea and the United States.