North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signalled the end of a self-imposed nuclear moratorium while threatening to show off a "new strategic weapon" in the near future, as he closed a party conference that wrapped up a year of nuclear stalemate.
In state media reports published yesterday, he also accused the United States of stalling for time "under the signboard of dialogue" and responding to his goodwill gesture of suspending the testing of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with more sanctions and joint military exercises with South Korea. This broke a promise by US President Donald Trump to suspend the drills.
"Under such condition, there are no grounds for us to be unilaterally bound to the commitment any longer," Mr Kim was cited as saying in a speech on Tuesday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. "This is chilling our efforts for worldwide nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation."
Mr Kim also urged the country to "actively push forward the project for developing strategic weapons", and warned that "the world will witness a new strategic weapon... in the near future".
But he appeared to leave some room for the resumption of talks with the US, saying that the attitude of the US would determine how far North Korea would strengthen its nuclear deterrent.
Negotiations have stalled since Mr Trump walked out of a summit with Mr Kim in Hanoi last February over a lack of agreement on what denuclearisation steps to trade for sanctions relief.
On Tuesday night, Mr Trump voiced confidence that Mr Kim would keep his promise of denuclearisation.
"He did sign an agreement talking about denuclearisation, and that was signed - number one sentence: denuclearisation," said Mr Trump, referring to the pact inked during their first summit held in Singapore in June 2018. "I think he's a man of his word."
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview with Fox News, also expressed hope that Mr Kim will "make the right decision" and "choose peace and prosperity over conflict and war".
Urging Pyongyang not to test any new strategic weapon, South Korea's Unification Ministry said yesterday that such a move "would not help denuclearisation negotiations and efforts to build peace on the Korean peninsula".
Mr Kim held the meeting of the ruling Workers' Party - the highest form of policy discussion - from Saturday to Tuesday, the first time in three decades that the meeting had stretched over more than two days.
The North Korean leader's speech on Tuesday appeared to replace his annual New Year's Day address, usually a highly anticipated event, during which he was expected to announce a "new path" away from talks with the US.
If so, this would be the first time since 2013 that he has not addressed the public on the first day of the new year.
Experts said Mr Kim might have replaced the New Year's address with a long party conference to buy time for his next move, after the lapse of his self-imposed year-end deadline for the US to come up with a better denuclearisation-for-sanctions proposal.
"By dragging the party conference for multiple days, Kim engineered a convenient excuse not to hold the New Year's address in which he was supposed to specify the long-awaited 'new path'," Dr Lee Seong-hyon of the Sejong Institute think-tank told The Straits Times.
"Given the stalemate with Trump, the new path would have been ICBMs and nuclear tests. But Kim avoided saying it himself, as that would end negotiations with Trump."
Professor Leif-Eric Easley of Ewha Womans University said Mr Kim "wants to increase diplomatic pressure on South Korea and the United States, but knows a major provocation is likely to bring more sanctions upon his regime".
The change from a televised New Year's Day address to a party conference speech could be "an effort to buy time", he added.
"North Korea's new 'strategic weapon' might not be ready. Meanwhile, Kim looks to elicit concessions by approaching Trump's red line without crossing it," said Prof Easley.
"For now, North Korea may focus on sanctions evasion rather than sanctions relief, and replace denuclearisation diplomacy with strategic deterrence and nuclear blackmail."
Ups and downs in nuclear diplomacy
JUNE 12, 2018
US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in Singapore for the first summit between the countries' leaders since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War. They issue an aspirational statement on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula without saying when and how it would occur.
FEB 27-28, 2019
Mr Trump and Mr Kim meet in Hanoi, Vietnam, for a second summit. It breaks down after the Americans reject North Korean demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of the country's nuclear capabilities.
North Korea fires two short-range missiles towards the sea in its second launch in five days, ramping up pressure on Washington over the slow pace of negotiations.
Mr Trump holds an impromptu summit with Mr Kim at the inter-Korean border and becomes the first US president to cross over into North Korean territory. The leaders agree to resume working-level talks.
North Korea says it carried out its first underwater-launched ballistic missile test in three years. The missile represents the North's most high-profile weapons test since the start of diplomacy in 2018.
North Korea says the Trump administration is running out of time to salvage nuclear negotiations, adding it is up to the US to choose what "Christmas gift" it gets from the North.
North Korea says it performed "a very important test" at its long-range rocket launch site. Six days later, it says it conducted "another crucial test" at the same site.
JAN 1, 2020
Mr Kim warns that his country will soon show off a new strategic weapon. He also says the North would no longer be bound to its moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests.