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N Korea at crossroads

Kim Jong Un set for key speech after a missile-free year of talks

With negotiations deadlocked, analysts see Kim reaching out directly to Trump

SEOUL -- A speech by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the first day of 2018 set the tone for a historic year of summits -- one without a single missile launched or nuclear device detonated.

Twelve months on, Kim has another opportunity to use a New Year's Day address to set out his agenda for the coming year.

With denuclearization talks with Washington deadlocked, he is likely to focus his speech on a possible second meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Analysts say that Kim may reach out to Trump directly to strike a big deal, bypassing State Department negotiators whom North Korean officials have criticized for strengthening sanctions against the isolated country.

But last week, Pyongyang laid out its definition of denuclearization in a statement that illustrates the gulf between its position and that of Washington.

"When we refer to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it, therefore, means removing all elements of nuclear threats from the areas of both the north and the south of Korea and also from surrounding areas from where the Korean Peninsula is targeted," state mouthpiece Korean Central News Agency said.

This clearly calls for the U.S. to remove from South Korea and Japan its so-called nuclear umbrella. Washington has also rejected any suggestion that it would reduce its military presence in the region as part of a deal, and has insisted that it will not lift sanctions until more progress has been made toward the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

"The statement was aimed at extorting Trump into granting sanctions relief and getting Trump to make political or symbolic concessions," said Van Jackson, a North Korea expert who served in the Obama administration and now teaches at Victoria University of Wellington.

"Playing hardball now forces Trump's hand. It makes U.S. policy look like a failure unless -- or until -- Trump does something differently. And when he does it'll be Kim's win, because he's after sanctions relief and political concessions."

In January, Kim surprised the world by announcing that North Korea would send athletes to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea in February -- a huge about-face from his war threats and missile tests of 2017. The leader did mention, however, that he had a nuclear button on his desk.

The North's attendance at the games paved the way for Kim's first meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the border village of Panmunjom in April, and the historic U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore in June.

"North Korea seems to be satisfied with its charm offensive this year which started from Kim's New Year message," said Wi Sung-rak, a retired diplomat who had been South Korea's top negotiator in North Korean affairs in the early 2010s. "It may suggest a similar message next year, aiming to break the stalemate and resume talks [with Washington] the way it wants."

But since the Singapore summit, high-ranking North Korean officials have refused on several occasions to meet their American counterparts, raising doubts over their commitment to giving up nuclear weapons.

The U.S. has also tightened economic sanctions against the North in a bid to pressure it to resume negotiations. Washington also warned Seoul not to loosen its own economic constraints on its neighbor.

South Korea had hoped Kim would accept an invitation for a summit in Seoul this year -- they even crafted a VIP itinerary for the North Korean leader, but have yet to receive a public response. The dictator appears to be placing a higher priority on a summit with Trump, which the president has said could take place in January or February.

Experts say that Kim prefers to deal with Trump rather than the State Department, as he wants to avoid detailed inspections of North Korea's nuclear arms. They expect Pyongyang will delay talks as long as possible to gain maximum rewards.

"North Korea will use the tactic of dealing with President Trump directly, escaping from high-ranking and working-level talks which demand reports and verifications of its nuclear program," according to a report by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based private think tank.

"Pyongyang may accept inspection of its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, but it won't allow inspections of Yongbyon [Nuclear Complex] because it does not want the U.S. to know how much nuclear material it has."

Earlier this year, North Korea said it will allow international experts to observe the Punggye-ri site in the northeastern mountainous village where it had conducted nuclear tests six times since 2006.

In September, Kim said that he was willing to demolish the Yongbyon complex if the U.S. made concessions on sanctions and other issues, such as formally ending the Korean War. Yongbyon, located 100 km north of Pyongyang, is the largest nuclear research center in the country.

"He will not cross the line and make an outright threat that North Korea may resume missile and nuclear tests if Trump continues to demand additional action for complete denuclearization," Bong Young-shik, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, said of Kim's speech. "He will try to remind Trump of the denuclearization actions North Korea has already made and Washington to return the favor."

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