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Kim Jong Un’s ‘major’ strategy shift on North Korean weapons and economy

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has announced he will no longer abide by a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests. With direct talks between North Korea and the Trump administration stalled, Kim also warned the people of his country about a “long confrontation” with the United States. The RAND Corporation’s Naoko Aoki joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, has announced he will no longer abide by a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, and he warned North Koreans of a — quote — "long confrontation" with the U.S.

    Meanwhile, direct talks with the Trump administration are stalled.

    For more on all of this, we turn to Naoko Aoki, an adjunct political scientist from the RAND Corporation and a former journalist who has been to North Korea 18 times.

    Thank you very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Naoko Aoki:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What are your main takeaways from Kim's statement?

  • Naoko Aoki:

    So, I think this is a major policy shift, from — to an emphasis on weapons development, strategic weapons development, and also an emphasis on self-reliance, in terms of the economy.

    And this is because North Korea sees a prolonged confrontation with the United States, and it thinks that it's unlikely that sanctions will be lifted soon.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, let's take each of those in turn.

    The first one you talked about, strategic weapon. That's the word that Kim used.

    Let's take a listen to a newscaster reading what Kim had to say about that.

  • Woman (through translator):

    He confirmed that the world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future.

    He said that we will reliably put on constant alert the powerful nuclear deterrent capable of containing the nuclear threats from the U.S. and guaranteeing our long-term security, noting that the scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated, depending on the U.S. future attitude to the DPRK.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, there's two points there. One, what is a new strategic weapon, but also that end phrase, depending on the U.S. attitude.

    How important are those things?

  • Naoko Aoki:

    Yes.

    So, we don't know exactly what this new weapon is going to be. But it is likely to be something qualitatively new, some component of it, at least, but we don't know what that is going to be.

    It could be something that would enhance the survivability of North Korea's nuclear weapons. And it's — the conditional part is also important as well. If you read the report carefully, it's — a lot of the things are conditional on what the United States would do.

    So there's a little bit of flexibility in what the North Koreans may do.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Flexibility, an opening, so that these talks maybe aren't dead?

  • Naoko Aoki:

    Yes.

    So, they didn't completely shut the door to diplomacy. And I think that is important, although things do not look very optimistic right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At the top, you laid out the two takeaways, the one strategic weapon, but, two, also the message of resilience, the message of a long confrontation with the United States.

    And we have got some language from Kim himself that I can read.

    And let's — let's just read that right now.

    He said: "The present situation warning of long confrontation with the U.S. urgently requires us to make it a fait accompli that we have to live under the sanctions by the hostile forces in the future too, and strengthen the internal power from all aspects."

    So, cutting through the chase of that, you have got two messages, one, the long confrontation, and we have to be resilient, as you said, right?

  • Naoko Aoki:

    Yes, that's correct.

    And so Kim Jong-un is preparing the public for a prolonged confrontation with the United States, which may involve, which is likely to involve some form of sanctions for the foreseeable future, and so lowering expectations for the lifting of sanctions and preparing the public for economic hardships ahead.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And what's the — what's the implication of that? Has he said that before? And how will North Koreans receive that?

  • Naoko Aoki:

    Well, it's a policy shift because, in April 2018, he said that his policy of pursuing both economic — economic development and nuclear arms development at the same time has been accomplished, and he's going to shift more emphasis on the economy.

    Well, this is sort of going back to that point where, well, the United States — from the North Korean point of view, the United States is continuing with its anti-North Korea — its hostile policy toward North Korea, and, therefore, we have to strengthen both.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Strengthen both, both the economy and the nuclear weapons or the nuclear system.

  • Naoko Aoki:

    The nuclear — yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And hence the strategic, which leads to the takeaway.

    I mean, so if he's talking about a long confrontation, if he's talking about new weapons, and the U.S. is not budging, as far as we know, are we going to go toward more confrontation and more back to where we were in 2017, fire and fury?

  • Naoko Aoki:

    Well, that's certainly a possibility.

    And tensions are likely to rise, but we don't quite know yet by how much. And that will depend on — a lot on what both sides do.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, meaning the United States doesn't necessarily have to go down the path of more confrontation, and nor will North Korea go down that path itself?

  • Naoko Aoki:

    That's the optimistic view, of course.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Naoko Aoki:

    And — but we could certainly see a return of what we saw in 2017.

    But it could — given the political U.S. presidential elections, the political calendar and everything else, it could mean that it could be somewhere below that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Meaning the United States and the Trump administration right now, as you see it, has no interest in ratcheting up tensions?

  • Naoko Aoki:

    And, also, the — North Korea would may not want to antagonize China, for example, by conducting ICBM tests, intercontinental ballistic missile tests, or nuclear tests.

    So that is also a factor that could play in their calculation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Naoko Aoki of RAND Corporation, thank you very much.

  • Naoko Aoki:

    Thank you.

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