The North Korean leader has often visited Mount Paektu, near the border with China, before making major policy shifts.
North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, this week took a second ride in less than two months on a white horse to the country's sacred, snow-covered Mount Paektu. The images showing him "riding a steed through knee-high virgin snow" may look like typical propaganda.
But analysts are holding their breath because of the timing of his visit.
In the past, Kim had often gone to the mountain on the Chinese border and the nearby Samjiyon County — which are venerated as the birthplace of the North Korean regime — when he wanted to show his people and the outside world his resolve before a major policy shift.
"Kim Jong Un wanted to signal at home and abroad that North Korea will go its own way, concluding that there is nothing it can expect from dealing with President Trump," said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University's Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul. "We will see an escalation of tensions."
Kim traveled to Mount Paektu in 2013, just two weeks before he executed Jang Song Thaek, his uncle and the No. 2 in his regime. He visited there again in December 2017, shortly after his country successfully launched its Hawsong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile and declared itself a nuclear power. Weeks later, in his New Year's Day speech, he started a flurry of diplomatic engagements that led to his summit meetings with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and President Donald Trump.
Now, Kim is widely expected to make another policy shift in coming weeks, as his diplomacy with Trump has failed to bring about the benefits he had sought, especially the lifting or easing of sanctions over his weapons programs.
In recent weeks, North Korea has repeatedly warned that Washington has until the end of December to make a new, more flexible proposal on how to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. The warning raised fears that Kim would abandon diplomacy and perhaps resume missile and nuclear tests.
Washington has dismissed the deadline as "artificial," and North Korea said Wednesday that it would convene the Central Committee of its ruling Workers' Party this month to "discuss and decide on crucial issues," given "the changed situation at home and abroad."
If visits to Mount Paektu are symbolic gestures, the Central Committee meeting is the traditional venue where Kim typically adopts major policy shifts.
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In one such meeting in 2013, Kim declared the byongjin — or "parallel" and simultaneous — pursuit of economic growth and a nuclear arsenal. In a meeting in April 2018, two months before his first meeting with Trump, he declared that since he had completed his nuclear force, he would adopt a "new strategic line" of focusing entirely on economic growth.
But as Kim's diplomacy with Trump faltered, North Korea warned this year that its leader would find "a new way," signaling that there would be another major policy shift.
The upcoming Central Committee meeting could see Kim "declaring an end to denuclearisation talks and reaffirming his country's status as a nuclear power," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior North Korea specialist at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
Cheong said it was noteworthy that Kim chose top military leaders to accompany him on the trip to Mount Paektu, a visit captured in dozens of photos released by the North's state media. Although Kim has visited Mount Paektu or Samjiyon nine times since taking power, this trip was the first time he was accompanied mainly by top military field commanders, analysts said.
"This signals that Kim Jong Un is likely to start paying more attention to the military and focus on strengthening its power," Cheong said.
Mount Paektu is a rare symbol of Korean unity, with both North and South Koreans considering it the birthplace of their nations. When Moon visited the North, Kim took him to the mountain.
But North Korea has also made the mountain the centerpiece of its propaganda. School textbooks and museum paintings there depict the plain around the mountain as the battleground where a small band of Korean guerrillas led by Kim Il Sung, Kim's grandfather and the founder of North Korea, fought Japanese colonialists in extreme weather on foot or on horseback, eventually leading the Koreans to liberation. The North says that Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, was born in one of the "secret guerrilla camps" there, a claim outside historians have refuted.
According to North Korea, the Kim family's revolution will not end until North and South Korea are reunified and freed forever from the "imperialist" influence of the United States.
The 71 photos of Kim's latest trip to the region were carefully choreographed to reinforce that propaganda: He led a group of military generals on horseback through paths cut through deep snow to visit the old guerrillas' secret camp sites. Kim was accompanied by his wife, Ri Sol Ju, just as his grandfather Kim Il Sung used to be followed by his wife and a fellow guerrilla, Kim Jong Suk.
Kim Jong Un and his generals huddled around a bonfire, re enacting a scene from the "arduous march" the Koreans undertook in their struggle against foreign powers.
"To outsiders, this may come across as crude and even comic propaganda," Lee said. "But this is the North Korean way of showing resolve and comradeship in the face of a difficult challenge, evoking the memories of the Koreans' struggle against the Japanese."
As his diplomacy with Trump has failed to ease sanctions, Kim has exhorted his people to build a "self-reliant" economy and brace for a protracted standoff with the Americans.
On Wednesday, North Korean news media said Kim had visited Mount Paektu to inspire his people to resist "the unprecedented blockade and pressure imposed by the imperialists" and prepare themselves for "the harshness and protracted character of our revolution."
Trump, for his part, said he still had "a good relationship" and "confidence" in Kim. But he also revived the possibility of using force against North Korea.
"We're by far the most powerful country in the world," he said as he met with NATO leaders in London on Tuesday. "And, hopefully, we don't have to use it, but if we do, we'll use it."
On Wednesday, North Korea vowed to retaliate if the United States used military force.
"One thing I would like to make clear is that the use of armed forces is not the privilege of the US only," Pak Jong Chon, chief of the general staff of the North Korean People's Army, said in a statement.
Written by: Choe Sang-Hun
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES