A great deal of apprehension existed throughout the world in anticipation of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s annual New Year’s Day address. In mid-December, Kim had promised an ominous “Christmas surprise” because negotiations with the United States about North Korea’s nuclear program had stalled. Although that threat failed to materialize, observers still worried about what Pyongyang might be planning. Concerns mounted when Kim spoke to the Central Committee of the ruling Workers Party at the end of December and declared that his country was no longer bound by its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests. Worse, he vowed that his country would soon unveil a “new strategic weapon” to the world.
But that address, outlining Pyongyang’s policy for 2020, still proved to be somewhat anti-climactic. New York Times reporter Choe Sang-Hun notes correctly that Kim “moderated those threats by leaving out the specifics. Mr. Kim did not explicitly say that he was formally lifting the test moratorium or that he was terminating diplomacy. Instead, he said his efforts to expand his nuclear weapons capabilities could be adjusted “depending on the U.S. future attitude. It’s a wait-and-see approach that leaves room for more negotiations.”
The bottom line is that we have not yet returned to the alarmingly confrontational situation that existed during President Donald Trump’s first year in office. At the same time, we are apparently no closer to a solution to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Moreover, although the fragile bilateral détente has not collapsed, the process of trying to normalize relations between the United States and North Korea clearly has stalled. Such an impasse cannot continue indefinitely, and when it ends it could do so catastrophically