At 9:30 a.m. on January 1, North Korea’s Korean Central Television aired leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address, which was different from last year’s in many ways. In 2017, Kim blamed himself, and it was considered unusual as the top leader. This year, in contrast, Kim appeared confident while he was reading out his New Year’s message. On the whole, North Korea seems to stress the need for vitalizing the economy and seek an exit in relations with South Korea, based on its confidence about what it claims to be the completion of its nuclear force. Here’s Professor Kim Hyun-wook at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy to evaluate Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech.

Overall, the New Year’s message showed North Korea’s confidence. Pyongyang showed off its nuclear deterrence against the U.S. and its significant economic outcome in 2017 under the nation’s five-year economic plan. As for South Korea, the North made a dialogue proposal on the occasion of the PyeongChang Olympics, stressing the importance of peace among the Korean people. It appears that Kim Jong-un has now stabilized his power base considerably.

The most attention-grabbing part is that Kim hinted at the possibility of North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Games. The North Korean leader said that the Winter Olympics in South Korea would provide a good chance to show the world the status of the Korean people and expressed his hope that the event would be a success. He also said that his nation was ready to take necessary steps, including the dispatch of the North Korean delegation, and the two sides could immediately meet for that purpose. In a rare move, North Korea allocated a considerable portion of its New Year’s message to inter-Korean relations to express its commitment to an improvement in cross-border ties.

I imagine North Korea needs to find a breakthrough amid the ongoing stringent sanctions. In December, South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent a message to both the U.S. and North Korea, in regards to the PyeongChang Olympics. That is, Moon proposed to the U.S. postponing the combined annual military exercises until after the Games, while suggesting to North Korea that they participate in the Olympics. Pyongyang made a positive response to the proposal through the leader’s New Year’s message. It seems North Korea chose to use the PyeongChang Olympics as an important means of seeking a breakthrough in the current situation, where it is difficult to improve relations with the U.S.

The presidential office in South Korea welcomed the North Korean leader’s expression of his intention to send athletes to the upcoming PyeongChang Olympic Games. On January 2, South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon suggested that the two Koreas hold high-level talks at Peace House in the truce village of Panmunjom on January 9, as there is one month left before the Winter Games. But he added that Seoul was willing to hold dialogue with Pyongyang regardless of the time, place, or format.

President Moon delivered a message to North Korea in December, and the North Korean leader made a response in his New Year’s address. The Moon government’s consistent efforts to improve ties with the North have made little progress so far, due to various reasons, including Washington’s hardline policy toward North Korea. But now, South Korea is upbeat about seizing the great opportunity to mend inter-Korean relations.

On January 3, North Korea said it would open the inter-Korean communication channel in Panmunjom, starting from 3:30 p.m. that day. Ri Son-kwon, chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, announced the plan on the Korean Central Broadcasting Station. He said that leader Kim Jong-un had instructed the reconnection of the inter-Korean hotline in order to discuss matters related to the dispatch of a North Korean delegation to the PyeongChang Olympics and future inter-Korean talks. The communication channel has been restored for the first time in nearly two years since it was cut in February 2016 when the inter-Korean joint industrial complex in Gaeseong was shut down. In contrast to Pyongyang’s conciliatory gesture to Seoul, the New Year’s message shows that North Korea remains unchanged in the nuclear issue. The North claimed once again that it had made a big achievement of completing its nuclear force last year through intercontinental ballistic missile launches and another nuclear test. Kim Jong-un said that the entire U.S. mainland is within the range of North Korea’s nuclear strike, threatening that the nuclear button is always on his desk.

North Korea and the U.S. continue to stick to their sharply differing views. North Korea declared the completion of its nuclear force in 2017. It sent a message to the U.S. that it would engage in dialogue if it is recognized as a nuclear weapons state. But the U.S. didn’t even blink at the message. It has no intention of negotiating with North Korea. For now, Washington’s North Korea policy is to choke off the North Korean economy by slapping even stronger sanctions on the nation. If the situation continues, the North Korean economy will face further difficulties in 2018. With neither side budging an inch, North Korea has no reason to send a conciliatory message to the U.S. Even if the North makes a peace overture, the U.S. is unlikely to change its stance in a way North Korea wants. Pyongyang is employing a strategy of sending a hard-line message to the U.S., while trying to address problems through South Korea.

While North Korea showed an aggressive attitude toward the U.S. in the New Year’s message, it seemed to refrain from harsh criticism of the U.S. International attention turns to how North Korea-U.S. relations may evolve in the future.

It’s too early to be optimistic about relations between North Korea and the U.S. We have to pay attention to how inter-Korean ties will unfold around the PyeongChang Olympics and whether the event will positively lead to dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. Considering that the U.S. still insists on tough sanctions on North Korea, we’ll have to wait and see whether the dialogue momentum during the Olympics will be kept alive after the Games.

Kim Jong-un mentioned the word “nuclear” 22 times in this year’s speech, more than four times the number in last year’s message, while the word “economy” appeared 21 times. Some speculate that Kim will continue to push for the policy of “parallel nuclear and economic development” this year. Others say that the North is concerned about the difficult lives of its people as a result of growing international sanctions.

Economic issues take up a significant portion of the message. Kim says the nation will carry out necessary economic strategies in 2018, the third year of the five-year economic development plan. It seems Kim wants to tell his people that the nation has completed its nuclear force based on the parallel policy and is implementing its economic policies as planned without a problem. By demonstrating this to his people, Kim is intending to elevate the status of his regime and stabilize his power. But the problem is whether North Korea can actually execute the economic development plan without setbacks amid international sanctions. In the initial stage, North Korea managed to endure the sanctions. Now, based on its nuclear and missile capabilities, it’s time for North Korea to make a deal with the international community and gain something from outside to steer the local economy properly. Whether or not the nation may succeed in this game will be a watershed in the North Korean economy in 2018.

Regarding Kim’s New Year’s message, major foreign media outlets, including CNN, took note of the phrase “nuclear button” but said that the North gave a reconciliatory gesture to the South. State-run media in China focused on North Korea’s peace overture. The PyeongChang Winter Olympics to be held in February will likely serve as an important turning point in regional diplomacy in the first half of this year.

From early February to mid-April, I don’t think there will be provocations or a security crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Throughout the Olympics, North Korea will seek to create momentum for inter-Korean talks and dialogue with the U.S. as well. Through inter-Korean dialogue, the North will continue to send a signal to the U.S., urging the U.S. to acknowledge it as a nuclear power. After the Olympics, South Korea and the U.S. will start their combined military exercises, which may prompt North Korea to make a provocation again, if the North and the U.S. fail to fine-tune their differing views during the Olympics. Depending on whether or not they may reach some sort of agreement during the Olympics, momentum for peace or provocations will be formed after the Games.

Experts point out the need for a careful strategy to deal with a peace offer by North Korea, which still has the nuclear button at hand. After the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, a warm diplomatic breeze should hopefully blow into the Korean Peninsula this spring.

[Interview] N. Korean Defector Starts New Life as Trot Singer in S. Korea

A North Korean defector and trot singer named Choi Geum-sil is singing a song titled “My Love.” Choi loved singing since she was a child. After graduating from school, the talented singer worked at propaganda troupes in North Korea, including the one in South Hwanghae Province, for more than 10 years.

When I was little, I played the violin and sang songs at school. But I preferred singing over playing musical instruments. It was just fascinating to me to receive applause from many audience members onstage. I worked at military and other propaganda troupes in the North, singing and hosting shows. I left North Korea in search of freedom. But also, I wanted to release my own album as a successful singer in South Korea. It’s no exaggeration to say that my strong desire for singing prompted me to escape from North Korea.

Choi came to South Korea in 2008. In the initial stage of resettlement, she needed to get a stable job. So she learned tax accounting at a school and worked at various places, including department stores and restaurants. Still, she found herself missing the stage.

I wanted to sing on stage in South Korea, so I visited orphanages and welfare centers for senior citizens at first. Various groups asked me to sing after I was invited to a show on the Police Day. One day, the KBS Nationwide Singing Contest was held here in Gangbuk-gu District. Countless candidates applied for the contest. I was lucky enough to be included in the final 15 teams. I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep. I felt like I had already become a star. I was honored to win the grand prize in the finals. Mr. Song Hae, the host of the contest, said that a woman from his hometown won the prize. Tears flowed down from my eyes. That was the happiest moment in my life. That’s how my singing career started.

Her first solo album mostly contained gospel songs. Later, she chose trot music in the hopes of reaching a wider audience. She needed to prepare a lot for the particular music genre, which she had never experienced before in North Korea. Most of all, it wasn’t easy to change her vocal technique and singing style, which she had used for a long time.

In North Korea, I used to sing powerful songs praising the party and the regime. The songs usually included words like “comrade,” “revolution” and “fire.” But South Korean songs have very emotional lyrics, which were difficult for me to express properly. First, I listened to the songs a lot through YouTube. Then I continued to sing and practice alone whenever I had time, even in a restroom. I’ve listened to famous trot singer Ju Hyun-mi’s songs and learned her singing style. I continue to study it and practice hard. I may not outperform her, but I’m trying really hard to be as good as she is.

After long preparations and strenuous efforts, Choi was able to release her second album with a title song “The Man’s Wind.” Even now, it makes her thrilled recalling that moment. Let’s hear from Choi and her mother, who watched the album being made.

I climbed Mt. Bukhan-san alone and cried “Hurrah.” I kept shouting, “Wow! You are awesome, Choi Geum-sil! You can do it! You’ll be reborn as a national star in South Korea!” After I shouted out in joy, I felt so refreshed. I was immensely happy.

A lot of fans loved my daughter’s songs. I was extremely delighted, as if I had released my album. I hope she will forget all the hardships she has gone through and become a successful singer in her second home—South Korea. I’ll always cheer for her.

Many people now recognize her and ask her to appear on their shows. It seems she has realized everything she dreamed. But it makes her feel uncomfortable thinking of her father, who parted with her in the defection process.

I wish I could be with my father at happy moments like this. I’m sure he would be very proud of me and loved me. Whenever I’m happy, I’m reminded of my father. When my family was escaping from North Korea, my father’s legs hurt. He didn’t want to be a burden on us, so he chose to stay. That’s how he was separated from us. I still remember the painful moment. He was fond of glutinous rice cake and pork. Every time I eat those foods and something wonderful happens, I miss my father. I miss him so much. I wrote the lyrics of this song, “Prayer in My Heart.” It contains my wish that unification will come about as early as possible for the sake of my loved ones in North Korea.

Choi imagines a happy day when she sings in front of both South and North Korean audiences. To make this dream a reality, she tries her best at this very moment.

I hope I can make songs that will appeal to people of all ages and become a popular star in South Korea. That’s my biggest goal. Last year, I launched a group called “South-North Love Sharing Welfare Society.” Through this organization, I hope to provide scholarships to college students from North Korea. I do hope my fellow 30-thousand North Korean defectors here will find love, hope and dream in this group. With this hope in mind, I’ll work hard and achieve success.