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N Korea at crossroads

Under pressure at home, Kim sets hard tone with US

North Korean leader seeks to shore up support as economy weakens

In this image made from a video taken on Apr.12, by North Korean broadcaster KRT, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers his speech at parliament in Pyongyang.   © AP

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has taken a hard line with the U.S., setting a deadline for talks and demanding an easing of sanctions in a move likely designed to shore up support at home.

In a rare address to the country's rubber-stamp legislature, Kim said the window for dialogue would close within a year if the U.S. does not offer concessions on sanctions related to the Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs. While he said he was "ready" to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump again, he refused to offer any specific concessions or compromise on his end.

"Anyway, we will wait for a bold decision from the U.S. with patience till the end of this year but I think it will definitely be difficult to get such a good opportunity as the previous summit," said Kim, referring to past meetings with Trump, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

Kim is under pressure at home to lift the economic hardship that has been created by crushing sanctions from the U.S. and other countries aimed at forcing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program. The North's economy continues to contract under the weight of sanctions, and last month United Nations and Red Cross officials said food production was at its lowest level in over a decade.

Kim struck the tough tone in a speech during the opening session of the Supreme People's Assembly, marking the first time the country's leader addressed the body since Kim's grandfather, the late Kim Il Sung, did so in 1990.

The young Kim described the crippling sanctions regime as "hostile" that came amid "long term confrontations" with the U.S. Kim's rhetoric hinted that the autocrat is looking to avoid a winnowing of his influence.

Ever since Kim and Trump held their no-deal summit at the end of February, it has been revealed that the North Korean military is strongly opposed to denuclearization. The sanctions have apparently interrupted operations at factories. By next year, the nation's petroleum reserves will be tight.

Most of Kim's 50-minute speech was focused on domestic matters. He vowed to concentrate all the nation's resources into building the economy. He also pledged to continue to strengthen the country's defensive capabilities, which he termed as a "powerful, precious sword."

Kim could also be trying to wait out the U.S. political calendar. As the U.S. presidential election set for November next year draws closer, Trump will have less time to spend on foreign policy. If Trump wants a denuclearization deal he can bring to the voters, somewhere around the end of this year would likely be the best time to negotiate.

Trump appears to be receptive to another face-to-face meeting with Kim. "I agree with Kim Jong Un of North Korea that our personal relationship remains very good, perhaps the term excellent would be even more accurate, and that a third Summit would be good in that we fully understand where we each stand," Trump tweeted Saturday.

However, Trump said during Thursday's summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in that sanctions will not be lifted until North Korea completely eliminates its nuclear weapons program. At this point, the possibility that the U.S. will offer concessions on the sanctions front appears slim.

The North Korean leader also expressed deep dissatisfaction with the South's inability to move forward with inter-Korean economic cooperation. But he said Pyongyang will strengthen the goodwill toward all countries that reciprocate. Not only has Kim traveled to China four times since 2018, he recently sent a close aide to Russia, which could lead to a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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