The Korean Peninsula witnessed in the year just past fiery rhetoric between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump and escalating tensions over North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. The year saw 20 missile launches and nuclear tests by North Korea.
The year 2018 began with signs of a thaw when North Korea's Kim Jong-un in his televised New Year speech called for lower military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and improved ties with the South. But at the same time, in a clear message to the US, Kim proudly declared his country a nuclear power, reminding that the intercontinental ballistic missiles in his possession are capable of reaching any part of continental United States, and thus the ambition to accomplish his goal of establishing a modern nuclear state is already achieved.
By mentioning this, Kim warned Trump that North Korea's capability would protect him and the nation from armed conflict with the US. Kim thundered: "The US cannot start a war against me or our country. The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, and a nuclear button is always on my desk€¦This is reality, not a threat."
If this was a threat to the US, Kim also made some conciliatory statements towards South Korea, with which North Korea technically remains at war as the 1950-53 Korean War was halted with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The truce has been an uneasy one since. The year 2018 started with good omen for both and they can gain if they show sincerity in their efforts. While North Korea would celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding, South Korea is hosting the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, east of Seoul, in February. It would be meaningful for both to cooperate.
Following the January 9 inter-Korea meeting in the border village of Panmunjom between South Korea's minister for unification and the chairman of North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, North Korea has agreed to participate in the Winter Olympics.
For South Korea, which has been worrying over a potential threat from the North to athletes and tourists from other countries, it should be great relief that Kim has decided to send a delegation of athletes, a cheering squad, an art troupe, a Taekwondo demonstration team and a group of reporters.
If Kim is sincere about de-freezing the inter-Korean relationship to make this a notable year for both, the comments are unexpectedly and exceptionally conciliatory. Kim's comments are balm to the dovish South Korean President Moon Jae-in who, after coming to power, had announced engagement with the North as his major foreign policy plank.
What stood out in Kim's New Year remarks was that it was in stark contrast to what he had said at the beginning of 2017. Trump had then expressed concern that Pyongyang was in the final stages of deploying an ICBM that could hit the US. Kim stood by his pledge when he launched on July 4 his nation's first long-range ballistic missile into space.
Kim then urged his scientists to accelerate the process. Soon, two more missiles were fired, one of which has the potential to reach Washington. This caused alarm in the US, South Korea and Japan. North Korea came under another round of economic sanctions. Undeterred, North Korea conducted a powerful underground nuclear test, announcing to the world its arrival as a modern nuclear state. With this background, Kim's New Year address in 2018 was muted and could lower the temperature as Kim is now confident its nuclear capability would deter Trump "from playing with fire".
Now, it is almost clear that any diplomatic solution might be aimed at freezing North's capability, rather than expecting the nation to disarm completely. Kim is unlikely to yield, having invested heavily in the nuclear programme. Any diplomatic effort to seek a solution has to be based on this premise hereafter.
If this is the threat option, can the olive branch offer be taken seriously? Now that Kim has announced that he is "open to dialogue" with Seoul, Moon has to seize the opportunity and respond, notwithstanding the fact that it could cause fissure in South Korea's relations with the US. Moon would be keen to create the right environment ahead of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang in late February.
Since not much time is left, Moon and Kim must move fast to make this happen so that the unity of the Korean people can be shown to the world, and the diplomatic temperature lowered. In fact, Moon is so keen to welcome the North's delegation that he proposed to Trump that the annual US-South Korea military drills be put off to until after the games.
Even when one is inclined to view Kim's New Year address positively, there is little indication that Kim is going to pause in his nuclear ambition. Kim's two-pronged policy of developing his country's economy and military will continue. Sanctions have bitten the North but not paralysed it.
Besides securing China's clandestine help, North Korea has other ways to earn money and has made progress in areas like fabrics, shoes and tractors. The Winter Olympics will keep Kim in the international limelight. It would not be surprising if Kim resumes missile and nuclear tests after the games. Kim would not like to be forgotten soon and would want to remain in the international spotlight.
(The writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan)