North Korea could consider change of tack, Kim warns

People watch a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivering a New Year's speech

In this year's speech, broadcast on state television early on Tuesday, Mr Kim said "if the USA does not keep its promise made in front of the whole world. and insists on sanctions and pressures on our republic, we may be left with no choice but to consider a new way to safeguard our sovereignty and interests".

Kim renewed his calls for a complete end to joint military drills between South Korea and the US and demanded that no foreign military strategic assets be brought onto the Korean Peninsula, saying that they are a "source" of tensions in the region.

The North Korean leader also vowed to uphold last year's agreements with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, playing up improving relations between the two Koreas.

After racing towards the goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the USA in 2017, Kim used last year's New Year speech to warn that "a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office" and order mass production of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.

Kim said he wanted to restart a joint economic zone in Kaesong and a joint tourism project at Mount Kumgang in the North "without preconditions".

Kim's speech comes after year of unprecedented summitry, including the historic summit with Trump and three meetings with Moon and two with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and provided a rare glimpse into the general direction of the reclusive country's policy in the months to come.

Kim made the comments on Tuesday during his annual New Year's Day address laying out Pyongyang's top priorities for the 12 months ahead.

He also called for a halt to the deployment of "strategic assets" on the Korean Peninsula, an apparent reference to USA bombers and submarines capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

The North is subject to multiple sets of United Nations Security Council sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile weapons programmes.

Kim's speech also points toward a hard year for the U.S.

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"However, if the United States does not deliver its promise and misjudge our people's patience, making unilateral demands to continue sanctions and put pressure on us, we will have no choice but to seek a new path to protect the country's independence, interests and peace on the Korean Peninsula", he said.

Trump agreed to scale down the drills after his June summit with Kim in Singapore, citing their cost and calling them "provocative" - the same language used by the North Koreans, though US and South Korean defense officials maintain the military exercises are defensive in nature. "If the United States responds to our pre-emptive and autonomous efforts with credible measures and corresponding actions, the relationship between the two countries will accelerate for the better".

"But for skeptics, this is the same North Korea - feigning negotiations over denuclearization but really wanting tension reduction with de facto acceptance as a responsible nuclear weapons state who will not transfer or produce additional capabilities".

Joseph Cheng, a Hong-Kong-based political scientist, argued that Seoul is ready to offer Pyongyang more economic incentives to scrap its nuclear program, but Washington's insistence that sanctions must stay until complete and irreversible denuclearization is holding further progress back.

Although the North did not conduct nuclear or missile tests past year, satellite images and leaked information from intelligence officials have pointed to ongoing activity at facilities in the secretive country.

As for Japan, it remains unclear if Kim is truly open to a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, though he hinted a year ago at the possibility "at an appropriate time", according to South Korea's Moon.

The core problem has always been that Mr Kim ultimately wants the withdrawal of 28,000 U.S. soldiers from South Korea in exchange for giving up his nuclear weapons.

"I am confident that the USA will probe this and unpack what the North Koreans mean", Carlin said. Trump wrote on Twitter.

North Korea did not conduct any weapons tests in 2018.

"North Korea has again restated its position, which remains unchanged", Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, told Bloomberg News.

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