Kim Jong Un keeps world guessing about New Year speech

Kim Jong Un keeps world guessing about big New Year’s speech

Kim’s next big address will be watched for the first signals of his approach to the US after Joe Biden‘s November election victory

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Credit: Reuters file photo.

By Jon Herskovitz and Jeong-Ho Lee,

For years, New Year’s Day has been among the biggest events on the North Korean political calendar, an occasion for its rulers to address their people and the world. Yet it’s unclear what Kim Jong Un has planned.

The secretive state has so far said nothing about whether Kim will return to tradition and personally deliver an address Friday, or surprise the world again like last year when he released a more than 4,000-word report instead. Kim could also save his rhetorical ammunition for a Workers’ Party Congress planned for early January -- one of his most substantial political events since he took power almost a decade ago.

In any case, Kim’s next big address will be watched for the first signals of his approach to the US after Joe Biden‘s November election victory. Kim, 36, is one of the few world leaders yet to congratulate -- or even acknowledge -- Biden’s defeat of President Donald Trump, who dispensed with decades of American foreign policy to hold three meetings with the North Korean leader.

In his New Year’s report last year, Kim said that he wasn’t bound by a self-imposed testing moratorium on nuclear and long-range missiles he put in place to facilitate talks with Trump. Kim called for “shocking actual action” to make the US “pay for the pains” suffered under the Washington-led sanctions.

Kim’s last public speech in October at a military parade featured a rare show of emotion when he appeared to cry when he talked about economic struggles and the international sanctions. He also rolled out several new weapons designed to strike US and allied forces, including the world’s largest road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.

Kim last appeared in North Korean state media on Wednesday in a report about about him presiding over a Politburo meeting. The body, among other things, set an early January timetable for North Korea’s first party congress in five years.

Any speech may give clues about Kim’s willingness to revive stalled talks to wind down his nuclear arsenal in return for easing sanctions choking North Korea’s economy. The sanctions squeeze has been exacerbated by natural disasters and Kim’s decision to shut borders due to the coronavirus -- pushing the economy toward its biggest contraction since famines in the 1990s.

Biden’s camp has signaled more room for negotiations, and the president-elect’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has backed a negotiated settlement with North Korea that first freezes and then rolls back its nuclear program in return for rewards.

“The Biden administration, as a first order of business, won’t be casting about for a splashy new deal to offer Kim Jong Un,” said Glyn Davies, a former US chief envoy for North Korea during the Obama administration who helped broker a deal to temporarily halt nuclear and long-range missile tests.

“Once consultations with our negotiating partners yield points of consensus,” Davies said, “feelers can be made to Kim Jong Un to start again down the path to denuclearization, in exchange for some combination of concessions.”

--With assistance from Sam Kim.