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Asia-Pacific

Emboldened N Korea seeks to divide Seoul and US

media People watch images of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's New Year's Day speech in Seoul, South Korea, 1 January 2018. ©Yonhap via REUTERS

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, analysts believe, following a New Year's Day address that rattled the nuclear sabre at the US but pushed a softer line towards South Korea.

Pyongyang is capable of carrying out a nuclear attack anywhere in the United States at the push of a button, Kim announced, continuing the aggressive rhetoric that has accompanied Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests of the past year.

But he also said he might send athletes to February’s Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.

Whether the nuclear programme’s capabilities actually match the rhetoric is unproven, but there is also little doubt the North Koreans have made great advances over the past year, and Kim’s speech reflects this.

N Korea nuclear-equipped

“It kind of seals the deal: North Korea is now a fully nuclear-equipped state, it doesn’t need to be aggressive anymore, it can just state the facts as it sees them,” says Remco Breuker, professor at the University of Leiden.

“Interestingly, Kim Jong-un sees the way forward for the coming year as a matter to be decided mainly between North Korea and South Korea, and he doesn’t see much room for America in that regard.”

While others agree that Kim’s speech reflects a confident and self-assured Pyongyang, some perceive a more tempered underlying message to the US.

“Repeating that he has the capability to strike the US with nuclear missiles shows that he will remain committed to firmness in terms of negotiations or discussions with the US,” says Jean-Yves Colin, a north Asia expert at the Asia Centre in Paris. "But even stating that is quite normal from his point of view and can be considered a normal way of starting a discussion with the US.

“It’s also a happy New Year message from the North Korean president, coming at a period of time when people are not aggressive, maybe not even in North Korea.”

Figure skaters and diplomatic manoeuvres

Kim also said he would consider sending a national team to February’s Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

For all intents and purposes it would be a small team, with North Korea’s only qualifying athletes being a pair of figure skaters.

But Seoul had previously suggested they would be welcome and President Moon Jae-in, who wishes to improve relations with Pyongyang, reacted positively to Kim’s speech.

“If there is any kind of North Korean participation, that would be very interesting and, one has to say candidly, not very much liked in Washington,” observes Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford.

North Korea’s participation at the Winter Olympics would indeed highlight a point of divergence between US President Donald Trump and Moon, who suggested last month that South Korea could delay routine military drills with the US until after the Games.

“Given that the South Korean government is in some degree of tension with the United States – it does not like Trump’s rhetoric – then you can see that what he’s trying to do is to widen that divide,” Rogers comments. “So to that extent, it’s really quite clever, diplomatically.”

US monitors inter-Korean relations

When asked for a reaction to Kim’s speech, Trump only told reporters “We’ll see, we’ll see,” and Remco Breuker does not expect him to go any further at the moment.

“I don’t think there is much of a response the US can effectively give,” he says. “[The speech] basically says ‘Leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone.’ Basically it’s a gloating speech, saying North Korea succeeded and it doesn’t have to talk to America.”

Behind the scenes, Paul Rogers believes, American diplomats will be measuring  what happens between the Koreas very closely.

“I think those in the State Department who really look at this in a fairly sanguine way will be very interested to see this and slightly concerned that the North Koreans really are trying to split South Korea, under its current government, from the United States,” he says.

“So there will be a degree of concern in Washington over this.”

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