Kim Jong Un shocked the world in 2018 by transforming his image from nuclear-armed tyrant to global statesman.
So what does he have up his sleeve for 2019?
Analysts believe that key clues will emerge during his annual New Year’s Day speech — essentially North Korea’s version of the State of the Union in the United States.
Experts will be watching for any mention of a second summit with US President Donald Trump or anything on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Kim could also reveal key decisions on economic policy and inter-Korean relations.
In a sign of his new diplomatic push, Kim sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Sunday. In it, Kim said he regretted that he regretted not being able to visit Seoul in 2018 but expressed a strong will to travel to the South Korean capital in the future.
Few expect Kim to rock the boat dramatically in Tuesday’s speech. Many believe the young leader holds some of the best cards of all the geopolitical players with a stake in the future of the Korean Peninsula. Most do not expect Kim to risk his standing in a speech that’s largely intended for a domestic audience.
“He’s got the United States and South Korea where they want them right now,” said Evans Revere, a former US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and current senior director with the Albright Stonebridge Group.
North Korea’s diplomatic achievements in 2018 would have been unthinkable a year earlier. In the lead up to Kim’s 2018 New Year’s speech, Pyongyang had tested its most advanced long-range missile to date and its most powerful nuclear bomb, after months of similar weapons tests and saber-rattling between North Korea and the US.
Few would have predicted that the following year, Kim would meet Moon three times, leave his country for the first time since taking power in 2011 and become the first North Korean leader to sit face to face with a sitting US President.
That dramatic shift began with the New Year’s address. Kim spoke warmly of the importance of inter-Korean relations, and wished his South Korean compatriots well in hosting the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Moon would go on to seize Kim’s olive branch as an opportunity to jumpstart cross-border relations.
“It was a seminal, critical and central document in terms of understanding North Korea’s game plan and North Korea’s intentions,” Revere said.
“I’ve never seen a game plan more transparently laid out than it was laid out in that speech.”
Kim kicked off the last two years with speeches that broke news, revealed major policy decisions and dropped rhetorical hints as to what the rest of the world should expect from his country in the coming year.
In 2017 he used the speech to say his country was close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) — the type necessary to delivery a nuclear weapon to the continental US. Pyongyang went on to test two ICBMs that year.