Hints for 2019: Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Address

Fireworks in Pyongyang. Photo: KCNA.

In his January 1st New Year’s speech, Kim Jong Un was almost relentlessly positive in discussing DPRK-US relations, a topic that took up an unusually large portion of the entire address. Rather than reprise the complaints about the negotiations with the US that had been the focus of numerous Pyongyang commentaries in recent months—almost all of them aimed at the external audience and not replayed on domestic media—Kim instead recounted his upbeat personal experience and almost unalloyed expectations as a result of the June 2018 Singapore summit. By doing so, he has deliberately left himself and President Trump maximum space for conducting negotiations leading up to a second summit. At the same time, Kim emphasized for the internal North Korean audience that he is personally committed to moving ahead with the US, and at least guardedly optimistic that progress is possible. This posture was in some ways similar to Kim’s public, personal commitment in January 2018 to engaging ROK President Moon Jae-in, which resulted in rapid progress on the inter-Korean front early in the year.

Outside observers have paid special attention to the formulation in Kim’s address that:

“…if the United States…attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.”

The formulation is vague, and no doubt intentionally so. On two counts it does not commit Kim to any particular course of action. First, the term “new way” is sufficiently vague so that, at least on the face of it, it could mean anything. Kim’s gauzy language gives the North the option of feeding out the real meaning drop by drop when and if it wants. Second, Kim was careful to use a construction that Pyongyang often employs to avoid making a direct, concrete threat from which retreat is difficult, i.e., “we may be compelled,” or “we may have no choice but…” as opposed to the more definite “we will.”

Kim’s use of the term “supreme interests of the state” in the above formulation is unusual. Over the years, the North has most often used that term in connection with arguments of why it needs a nuclear deterrent. Undoubtedly, there are those in Pyongyang who will recall that the DPRK was exercising the “supreme interests” clause when the North first announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in March 1993.

Timing. A constant DPRK theme since the Singapore Summit has been that progress in US-DPRK relations, on the way to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” depends on the two sides taking “a simultaneous and phase-by-phase course based on reciprocity and equality.” In fact, the North’s accounts of the June summit meeting claimed that:

“The DPRK and US supreme leaders agreed that it is important to observe the principle of step-by-step simultaneous actions in the process of achieving peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

It seems worth noting, therefore, that Kim did not bring up the “phase-by-phase” approach in his speech, and to some extent, even hinted at a way to expedite progress, claiming that:

“If the US responds to our proactive, prior efforts [i.e., presumably meaning not something new on the North’s part] with trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions, bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace through the process of taking more definite and epochal measures.”

A January 2 article by a key and well-informed commentator—Kim Ji Yong—in the pro-North Korean paper in Japan, Choson Sinbo, seemed at pains to take note of the absence (maybe even the oversight?) in Kim Jong Un’s speech of any reference to the “phase-by-phase” approach. Perhaps by way of clarifying, the Choson Sinbo piece claimed:

“The New Year address confirms the supreme leader’s unchanging commitment to implement the 12 June North Korea-US Joint Statement and reiterates the stage-by-stage simultaneous action principle agreed upon at the Singapore summit. There is no need to add something new or make a new proposal.”

As if it were not already clear, the Choson Sinbo article sharpened the message, pointedly noting that, “The New Year’s address contains a very concise and clear message to the occupant of the White House.”

Denuclearization. Kim Jong Un affirmed it was his “firm will” to “advance towards complete denuclearization.” Curiously—and whether by design or not—he did not clearly say “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the normal DPRK formulation and the one that appears in the Singapore Summit document. The earliest appearing KCNA English version of Kim’s speech rendered this more carefully, noting that Kim had laid out his goal to “establish a new relationship between the two countries, set up a permanent and durable peace mechanism in the Korean peninsula and completely denuclearize it in keeping with the demand of the new century, as clarified in the June 12 DPRK-U.S. joint statement.”

The subsequent, full text English-language versions that were carried by KCNA and appeared on the Rodong Sinmun website, however, failed to link “denuclearization” so clearly and directly with the “Korean Peninsula,” instead rendering Kim’s remarks as:

“It is the invariable stand of our Party and the government of our Republic and my firm will to establish a new bilateral relationship that meets the demand of the new era as clarified in the June 12 DPRK-US Joint Statement, build a lasting and durable peace regime and advance towards complete denuclearization.”

Nuclear weapons production. Kim claimed that as evidence of the North’s commitment to the above goals:

“Accordingly, we declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them, and we have taken various practical measures.”

At the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Third Plenum in April 2018, the North declared a total halt to nuclear weapons and ICBM tests and offered a qualified pledge not to use or proliferate nuclear weapons. There was no reference to stopping “production,” at the time, nor has there been anything along those lines since. The closest Pyongyang has come is Kim’s offer in September to dismantle fissile material production facilities at Yongbyon if the US takes “corresponding measures.” Thus, the question arises, was Kim slipping in a pledge to halt “production” while making it appear this was not new and thus not a further concession on his part even before negotiations got underway? It is interesting to note that with Kim’s remarks on stopping “production,” the North has now checked off three (highlighted in bold below) of the eight activities North and South Korea pledged in their January 1992 Denuclearization Declaration not to undertake:

“…test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.”

Clearly, the three highlighted in yellow remain key to eventual total denuclearization.

Economic issues. Not surprisingly, Kim’s main focus in his speech this year was switch from “byungjin” (the previous policy of simultaneous effort on the economy and the nuclear weapons sector) to total focus on the economic construction—the “new strategic line” adopted at the Third WPK Plenum. To underline the point, Kim twice went out of his way to single out the implications of the new line, especially for the all-important munitions industry. First, he noted the munition industry’s production of “a variety of farm machinery, construction equipment, cooperative product and consumer goods.” Later in the speech, as if to drive home the point, he underlined:

“The munitions industry should, on the one hand, steadily raise the national defense capacity to that of the world’s advanced countries by stepping up the effort for making the defense industry Juche-based and modern, therefore guaranteeing the peace on the Korean peninsula by force of arms, and, on the other, should actively support economic construction.

As usual, Kim made no overt mention of economic reform, but he did use code phrases that stand for the new policies he has been pushing since coming to power in 2011.

“The Cabinet and other state and economic guidance organs should improve planning, pricing, and monetary and financial management in line with socialist economic law and make sure that economic levers have a positive effect on the revitalization of production and expanded reproduction in enterprises. They should adjust the structures and system of work to raise the efficiency of economic work and to make enterprises smoothly conduct their business activities.”

In the agricultural sphere, he explicitly recognized “sideline” efforts by “individual farmers” as an important contribution to the supply of meat and eggs to the population. Sideline farming has been an important factor increasing agricultural production, and the regime has given it formal, approved status for many years. Recently, in his speech at the 7th WPK Congress in 2016, Kim spoke of the need to develop “individual livestock farming at rural households.” That fits with a broader initiative by Kim to develop what is now known as—but rarely discussed in the media—the “plot responsibility system,” designed to motivate farmers to grow more by, at least in theory, allowing them to keep more. Thus, while his reference to “individual” farming is not new, it reinforces the legitimacy of these efforts and, presumably, will prod local authorities to encourage them.

The Choson Sinbo article filled in something left unspoken in Kim’s New Year’s address but which dominates the regime’s calculations and was presented as a major rationale at the time of the Third Plenum decision on the “new strategic line.” It clarified the linkage between the external security situation and the North’s new, concentrated efforts on economic construction, and the assertion that by successfully eliminating the threat of war, the DPRK was removing the biggest obstacle to rebuilding the economy.

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