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A man reading a newspaper posted on a public newspaper bulletin board is reflected on a glass as a photo of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is published on a Chinese newspaper with an article that reads "Trump uses fist to talk" in Beijing, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017.

Andy Wong/The Associated Press

Kim Jong-un sparked global condemnation with his televised declaration that North Korea is pursuing an intercontinental ballistic missile, including from president-elect Donald Trump, who Monday night on Twitter promised that "it won't happen!"

But the fearsome prospect of a showdown between the world's biggest military power and its most unpredictable nuclear-capable nation threatened to overshadow the conciliatory language in the New Year's speech where Mr. Kim spoke about his country's missile capacity — although not as a threat, a subtlety that went largely unrecognized.

Instead, he said his country had in 2016 "entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile." The past-tense statement was an important distinction, according to those who have parsed his comments, and say the North Korean leader instead signalled a willingness to stand down on tests, so long as the U.S. makes concessions.

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"Kim Jong-un did not say, 'I will test an ICBM,'" said John Delury, an expert on North Korea at Yonsei University in Seoul. "He's definitely putting it out there to get the American attention, but then he's leaving room for a negotiation."

"I think the guy wants to talk."

Mr. Kim's New Year's speech is his most important of the year, an annual exercise in trumpeting successes and sketching future plans that is repeatedly played on local television. While the 2017 address reprised many themes and bluster from previous years, it also offered hints of a leader that contrasts with his caricature as unstable.

Mr. Kim spoke at length about his country's economy and, in a surprising departure, concluded with a bit of anguished introspection.

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"I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my ability," the leader of the isolationist country said. "I am hardening my resolve to seek more tasks for the sake of the people this year and make redoubled, devoted efforts to this end."

In what ways does Mr. Kim think he has failed? "It seems pretty clear from the speech that it was on the economy – he's not delivering big economic growth," Prof. Delury said.

That suggests he may be open to discussing a deal, perhaps one where North Korea freezes its nuclear program in exchange for the U.S. halting joint military exercises with South Korea, thereby freeing Mr. Kim "to focus on the economy, which I think is what he wants to do," Prof. Delury said.

"He wants economic development. That's really what he wants to be about."

That idea contrasts with the bombast of North Korea's high-profile effort to upgrade its arsenal, which in the past year has included underground nuclear tests and a series of missile launches.

Though its weapons program has been plagued with failures, North Korea has made major gains in developing a miniaturized nuclear bomb capable of being inserted in a missile and fired on the U.S. Last fall, a North Korean official boasted that his country already possessed the ability to hit West Coast targets, and outside experts have estimated that the country has sufficient material for dozens of nuclear weapons.

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"Probably most of North Korea's missiles are nuclear-capable, in the sense that their nose cones are large enough to accommodate the warhead that Kim Jong-un showed off last spring. That would include their ICBMs," said Joshua Pollack, an expert on nuclear and missile proliferation who edits The Nonproliferation Review, an academic journal.

"I don't know what [Mr. Trump] meant when it said it would never happen. Does he not think there's a missile that could be tested? I hope he doesn't think that."

History gives little reason for optimism that Mr. Trump can stand in the way of North Korea firing one of those missiles.

"There is probably little that Mr. Trump can do to stop the test, short of offering some incentive or concession to buy time," said Toby Dalton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment.

In a 2000 book, Mr. Trump himself advocated military measures, like "a surgical strike against these outlaws" to ensure North Korea does not gain "the ability to lob a nuclear missile into Chicago, Los Angeles or New York."

He has more recently said he would not take pre-emptive action, but prominent Republicans have championed the idea, though Mr. Pollack said it would be an unreliable option, given North Korea could move its missiles, and would also be "incredibly reckless."

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Such a move would "risk a war, and would invite all sorts of condemnation," he said.

That leaves diplomacy, and here Mr. Trump will occupy the White House at a rare historic junction, with signs from North Korea that it's open to talking and political turmoil in South Korea, where president Park Geun-hye is mired in impeachment proceedings.

"It means South Korea doesn't have its normal ability to block unilateral American approaches to North Korea for fear of being entangled or forgotten about," said Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability.

That leaves Mr. Trump with "the ability to move swiftly and decisively with regard to North Korea in a way that no president has had really since the end of the Cold War," he said.

The moment of opportunity will not last long, and the list of foreign policy problems Mr. Trump will inherit is lengthy, meaning his attention may be directed elsewhere. But the Obama administration has reportedly told Mr. Trump's team it considers North Korea the top national security threat in coming years, and Mr. Trump has said he is willing to meet Mr. Kim.

Were he to try to make a deal, perhaps working alongside Russia, he "might be surprised by North Korea's willingness to go along," Mr. Hayes said.

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Under Mr. Trump, progress on North Korea is "conceivable," he said. "Is it likely? I'd have to say the odds are against it. There are just so many things that can go wrong in a situation as complex as that."

But, he added, "North Korea has been sending faint but discernible signals of willingness to talk."

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