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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over the test launch of a Hwasong-12 ballistic missile.   © Korea Media/Kyodo

Kim Jong Un's New Year speech may hold message for US

After declaring itself a nuclear power, will North Korea propose talks or make new threats?

SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made good on his 2017 New Year's Day pledge to accelerate the country's nuclear weapons development, which means a speech anticipated for Monday could hold the key to decoding the regime's plans for 2018.

Pyongyang proved itself as a major military power this year, the Rodong Sinmun, a mouthpiece for the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, said in an opinion piece published Friday. Trying to take nuclear weapons away from the North would be as futile as waiting for the sea to dry, it added.

Kim touted in his 2017 New Year's address that North Korea had "entered the final stage of preparation" to test an intercontinental ballistic missile. True to his word, the rogue state's 15 ballistic missile tests so far this year have focused on intermediate- and long-range rockets. After firing the midrange Hwasong-12 in September, Kim declared that the rocket was operationally ready.

North Korea also conducted two tests of the ICBM-class Hwasong-14. In November, the country launched the Hwasong-15 -- a larger, longer-range missile believed to have all of the U.S. within its reach. Kim then said Pyongyang had "finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force."

How close?

North Korea's actual military capabilities remain unknown. With a sixth nuclear test in September, the country has met some of its goals for miniaturizing warheads and boosting their capability for destruction, said Lee Choon-geun of South Korea's Science and Technology Policy Institute.

But Lee maintained that North Korea's missiles are not ready. It is unclear whether the country has developed warheads capable of surviving atmospheric re-entry. Pyongyang would need more than one or two successful tests to demonstrate it has reliably achieved this ability. Lee also thinks the North has yet to create a system for mass-producing missiles and maintaining them.

North Korea has repeatedly defended its right to a space program of late, hinting at plans to launch a satellite into orbit on a rocket -- little different in technical terms from firing a missile. Pyongyang may continue conducting missile tests under the guise of space development.

Next move?

Kim, who on Saturday marks the end of his sixth year as North Korea's leader, has given a speech on each New Year's Day since 2013. He could propose a dialogue with the U.S. in his next address Monday, on the grounds that nuclear powers need to coexist peacefully, said Ko Yu-hwan, a professor at South Korea's Dongguk University.

The U.S. has vowed to exert "maximum pressure" on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, while the North demands to be recognized as a nuclear power. Tensions between the two countries continue to rise, and one wrong move could have dire consequences.

Yet an opening for negotiation remains, Ko said. The U.S. wants to keep North Korea from actually deploying intercontinental missiles; the Kim regime wants a guarantee for its survival. Kim's New Year's speech could shed light on whether 2018 will bring an easing of tensions or further escalation.

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