President Kim Jong-un of North Korea has advanced a sweet-and-sour message to Donald Trump as 2019 has unfolded. Six months after the grandstanding during the historic summit in Singapore, the North Korean President would appear to have made his position clear ~ he has clarified that international sanctions must be lifted before Pyongyang gives up a single weapon, dismantles a single missile site, or stops producing nuclear material.

In a sense, therefore, the inherently aggressive US President is back where he was when missile tests were as awesome as they were frequent, and before the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, played the honest broker in an exceptional case-study of mediation in international relations. The list of recent North Korean demands was a clear indicator of how the summit had altered the optics of the relationship.

It was clear too on New Year’s day that the reality may yet pose a forbidding challenge to the White House. In point of fact, Pyongyang has buttressed its demands with which the world has been familiar ~ all joint military training between the United States and South Korea be stopped, that American nuclear and military capability within easy reach of the North be withdrawn, and that a peace treaty ending the Korean War be completed. More accurately, not much has changed since Kim and Trump met at the high table; the North Korean President has now afforded a measure of clarity that in retrospect might have been obfuscated when the two countries scripted history, thanks to South Korean intervention.

It would be pertinent to recall that during the summit, the North had refused to accept the US definition of ‘denuclearization’. While in Washington’s reckon ing, that means the North gives up its entire nuclear arsenal, Pyongyang clamours for a reciprocal pullback of any American ability to threaten it with nuclear weapons. In terms of geostrategy, the two competing visions of denuclearization have not changed since last June. It is pretty obvious that at the level of diplomacy, there has been a seasonal recurrence of the confrontatist stance. Mr. Kim’s message was bereft of the previous threats of turning Seoul into what he called a “sea of fire” or striking the United States with a “nuclear sword of justice.”

Nonetheless, the tough stance was specifically a warning that “if the US does not keep its promises” and continues “with sanctions and pressure” against North Korea, “then we, too, have no choice but to seek a new path for our country’s sovereignty.” Markedly, that relatively mild belligerence has not been matched with a similar stiffening of policy.

On the contrary, President Trump ~ grappling with the shutdown of America ~ was remarkably diplomatic in his response. He mentioned President Kim’s offers not to produce or proliferate weapons, without mentioning the blunt caveats. He has conveyed the message that he looked forward “to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential”. There may be hope yet as fire and brimstone is bound to turn the clock back.