Kim Jong Un on Monday warned the United States that he has a “nuclear button” on his desk ready for use if North Korea is threatened, but offered an olive branch to South Korea, saying he was “open to dialogue” with Seoul.
After a year dominated by fiery rhetoric and escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Kim used his speech marking the beginning of the new civil year to declare North Korea “a peace-loving and responsible nuclear power” and call for lowered military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and improved ties with the South.
“When it comes to North-South relations, we should lower the military tensions on the Korean Peninsula to create a peaceful environment,” Kim said. “Both the North and the South should make efforts.”
Rather than encouraging U.S. measures that “threaten the security and peace of the Korean Peninsula,” Seoul should instead respond to overtures from the North, Kim said.
A spokesperson for President Moon Jae-in’s office said they were still reviewing Kim’s speech.
Asked by reporters to comment on Kim’s speech, President Donald Trump simply said “We’ll see, we’ll see,” as he walked into an event at Mar-a-Lago, his elite resort in Florida.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Kim’s address.
North Korea tested intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September in defiance of international warnings and sanctions, raising fears of a new conflict on the Korean peninsula.
After testing what Pyongyang said was its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of delivering a warhead to anywhere in the continental United States, at the end of November, Kim declared his nuclear force complete.
He continued that theme in his address Monday, announcing that North Korea would focus on “mass producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment” in 2018.
This, Kim said, was “irreversible with any force,” making it impossible for the United States to start a war against North Korea.
“The whole territory of the U.S. is within the range of our nuclear strike and a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office and this is just a reality, not a threat,” he said, while emphasizing that the weapons would only be used if North Korea is threatened.
Kim’s customary Jan. 1 speech is closely watched for indications of the policy direction the unpredictable and reclusive leader is likely to pursue in the coming year.
Beyond listing military accomplishments, Kim also outlined economic gains as part of his two-pronged policy of developing his country’s economy and military.
Despite increased international sanctions imposed over the weapons program, North Korea made progress in areas like fabrics, shoes and tractors, Kim said.
While Kim is keen to declare his weapons program a success, he is unlikely to completely end his contentious testing regime, said Scott LaFoy, a ballistic missile analyst at the website NK Pro, which monitors North Korea.
“I’m still very skeptical of the ‘complete’ thing they’ve been talking about, if only because we’ve seen so much activity in regard to the submarine-launched ballistic missile program,” he said. “I think a slowdown [in testing] is very realistic, though.”