What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Decoding the mixed signals in Kim Jong Un’s New Year speech

In his annual New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un boasted of his country’s nuclear power, while reaching out to South Korea over next month’s Winter Olympic Games. Frank Jannuzi, who took part in the Clinton administration’s talks with North Korea and now heads the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, lends his perspective.

Read the Full Transcript

  • William Brangham:

    Next, Jeffrey Brown explores the mixed signals coming out of North Korea today, where a possible overture also came with more threats against the U.S.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It was an annual New Year's address from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but this year, it came with a surprise outreach to Seoul, including possible participation in next month's Winter Olympics, to be held in South Korea.

    Coupled with that, though, new boasts of the North's nuclear power.

    Here are some key excerpts.

    Kim Jong-un (through interpreter): The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, and a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat.

    This year, we should focus on mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment.

    The Winter Games, to be held in South Korea, will be a good occasion for the country. We sincerely hope that the Winter Olympics will be a success. We are prepared to take various steps, including the dispatch of the delegation. Officials from the two Koreas may urgently meet to discuss the possibility.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What to make of these mixed messages?

    Frank Jannuzi took part in Clinton administration talks with North Korea and has since worked on East Asia policy in and out of government. He now heads the Mansfield Foundation.

    Welcome to you.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Good to be here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Let's start with this new call for dialogue with South Korea. How important? What do you read from that?

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    It's critically important.

    This was not a tweet. This is a carefully prepared government policy document. And the outreach to South Korea on two fronts, the Olympics, but also on the issue of reducing tension and trying to live side by side in peace, this was the first time that the Kim Jong-un government has really responded favorably to the peace initiatives offered up by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, you have that on the one hand.

    But, on the other hand, it comes with this continued warning and reiteration to the U.S. of the nuclear power, so no change there.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Well, indeed.

    Kim Jong-un's byungjin policy, his dual-track approach of military preparedness and economic modernization, is predicated on first North Korea establishing a credible nuclear deterrent. They now claim they have done that. It perhaps opens the door to dialogue first with South Korea and hopefully down the road with the United States.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, even in recent days, the current administration has tried to martial international — other countries for continued and even stronger sanctions, right?

    So, does a speech like this have the potential to change the calculus, if not for the U.S., but perhaps for other countries?

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Well, I would certainly hope that the Trump administration is watching the speech extremely closely, because it may represent the first positive outcome of the Trump administration's maximum pressure and engagement strategy.

    The pressure in New York, the pressure from the UN Security Council, the diplomatic isolation may be bearing fruit. And now may be the opportunity to seek for the off-ramps.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But you're saying it is something that the Trump administration could take credit for?

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    I don't really care who takes credit. I think they absolutely could take credit. I hope that they will, because if their policy is working, it can lead to tension reduction and the opportunity to make progress on the critical security issues that confront us.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But another reading of this could be that it's an attempt to wedge — to create a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. Right?

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Indeed, because President Moon Jae-in has adopted a softer approach to the North than has the Trump administration.

    I think we shouldn't worry too much. The South Korean-U.S. alliance is as strong as I have ever seen it in 30 years of looking at that special partnership.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But where does it leave South Korea? Because they have been — as you said, the president has called for this kind of new openness, and now it might actually happen.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Well, Moon Jae-in wants to lead on the issues on the Korean Peninsula. He doesn't want to delegate that job to Washington.

    So if he can now orchestrate a meaningful tension reduction and North Korean participation in the Olympics, he may get that chance to lead in 2018.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's interesting, finally, just to think of the Olympics. This is the Olympics as kind of diplomatic — diplomacy ball, right?

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Well, we have had sports diplomacy in East Asia going back to the Nixon ping-pong era.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We sure have, yes.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    So, if the Olympics can help bring a mood of peace and then a spirit of cooperation, that would be a wonderful outcome for these Winter Games.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What does happen next? What do you look for, because we have seen swings so many times in this, right?

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Absolutely.

    The first critical objective is to secure North Korea's participation in the Games. If that falls through, we may see a real diplomatic backlash.

    But I think the next steps are even more important, tension reduction. No one should expect North Korea to unilaterally disarm or unilaterally halt all their missile testing and military exercises. It's going to take careful negotiations.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Frank Jannuzi, thanks very much.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Thank you, Jeff.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest