On January 1, 2014, Kim Jong Un gave his second New Year speech to the people of North Korea after resuscitating a tradition that existed until the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. While this year’s speech, like last year’s, does not announce any major policy shifts—no reasonable observer of North Korea would have expected such an announcement—the level of detail is remarkable. As a result, it makes for much more interesting reading than the empty bundle of general statements we heard in January 2013. While interpretation of the single points in the 2014 New Year speech is often in the eye of the beholder, the contrast to the 2013 speech is striking. This year, there is much more of Kim Jong Un’s personal priorities shining through.
Compared to January 2013, when Kim Jong Un stressed his succession and the continuation of the cause of the two deceased leaders as the key features of 2013, this year’s speech is much more energetic and forward-looking. Among its interesting points are: 1) a strong emphasis on an external nuclear threat and the development of North Korea’s own nuclear capabilities; 2) a continuing praise of scientists in the defense industries embellished by a new related desire to develop and build military hardware that is “light, unmanned, intelligent and of high precision,” i.e. drones; 3) a clear and continued emphasis on ambitious construction including entertainment facilities, residential buildings and economic projects that benefits Pyongyang the most but is also having an impact on the countryside; 4) a not surprising focus on power generation to help modernize the DPRK economy, which included for the first time in a New Year’s message the demand to save energy; and 5) less on ideology and more on actual policies, which reflects Kim’s view that he is now more firmly in control and needs to spend fewer words to stress his relation to the previous two leaders.
While on the economic side, mention of socialist principles and central planning is much less explicit than in previous official announcements, we note the absence of any hint of economic reform. The current strategy still seems to be perfection, i.e. making the system work. In addition to ideological incentives, it is mainly technology that is supposed to increase productivity. Entertainment still seems to be a top priority for motivation, while there are hints at a desire to scale back consumption that has risen beyond the state-owned economy’s capacities. A new focal area of state spending is construction, which is not only aimed at creating monuments, but also on winning the hearts of the population by building more housing.
First, an Analytical Word
North Korea’s New Year messages, either in the form of editorials or direct speeches by the leader, cannot be understood in isolation. They should be compared with previous versions to identify constants and variables, to look for the usual and the unusual. For example, most past speeches and editorials mention the status of the country as an economic giant, the single-minded unity of the people and the leader, the desire for reunification, the improvement of the people’s living, the need to promote heavy industry, light industry and agriculture, the invincible military might of the country and so on. It is also typical to highlight important anniversaries like the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung or successfully completed economic and other projects like the Huichon power station.
Other times, there have been formulations that reflect specific circumstances. In the 2009 New Year message, it was the emphasis that North Korea was “politically stable,” an obvious response to rumors about the health of Kim Jong Il. In 2010, local industries were mentioned and socialism was stressed much more than in the previous years, the latter hinting at an explicit anti-market position. In 2011, consumer goods received particular attention, socialism was mentioned less frequently, the country was declared a “cultural giant,” and the people were asked to “boost the coal miner’s morale,” implying that there was something wrong with the latter. The 2012 editorial was characterized by the death of Kim Jong Il and the system’s attempts to solidify the dynastic succession, an emphasis on turning sorrow into strength, the merger of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il into one entity and loyalty to Kim Jong Un, the only true successor. The 2013 speech was remarkably shallow, general and devoid of any specific issue. The only highlight was that, after a break of 19 years, the supreme leader addressed his people directly again.
Since Kim Jong Un’s rule is still a work in progress, so are his speeches. For example, the core theme of Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speeches is not as easily recognizable as back in the days of the editorials (see Table 1). The latter had headings; the speeches do not. In 2013, I could not identify a single dominant core theme, except perhaps the fact that the leader addressed his people directly. For 2014, we are facing the same situation, although I would argue that economic construction has received a particularly important share of the leader’s attention. This is not surprising since Kim Jong Un has been promoting the improvement of the economy from his first day in office and, I would argue, bases his legitimacy to a certain degree on economic success. Unlike his father, Kim Jong Un cannot hope to extract enough legitimacy from just being his father’s son; he needs to become a leader in his own right.
Two years after he took over, we are still wondering about Kim’s main policy direction, particularly on whether he will initiate economic reforms or try to return to the classical socialist system his grandfather created. I have argued that given the massive increase of spending on entertainment, representation and construction, the country must sooner or later be experiencing a shortage of funding since it cannot borrow money on the international financial markets. The reform pressure is thus clearly there. But the key issue remains how will the leadership react? There have been shortages of funds in the past, and none of them has led into reform. Maybe now that Kim Jong Un has shown his strength externally through missile launches, a nuclear test and the standoff with the US in spring 2013 as well as internally by the public punishment of his uncle Jang Song Thaek, he will move forward with a remodeling of his country. Or maybe he will feel happy as a dictator and try to avoid anything that could jeopardize his position, including risky reforms. His public speeches, including the one for New Years, might provide a clue. If reform is not yet the name of the game, he could at least announce a few new policies in the economic field. In any case, Kim needs economic success, and this success must come from somewhere—reform or attempts at perfecting the existing system are both options.
Table 1: Headings and core themes of North Korea’s New Year messages, 2002-2014
|Glorify this year that greets the 90th birthday of President Kim Il Sung as a year of a new surge in the building of a powerful nation
|Let Us Fully Demonstrate the Dignity and Might of the DPRK Under the Great Banner of Army-Based Policy
|Let’s glorify this year as a year of proud victory through revolutionary offensive on all fronts of building a great prosperous powerful nation under the Party’s leadership.
|Let the Whole Party and Army and All the People Unite as One in Mind and More Strikingly Demonstrate the Might of Songun
|Make a higher leap full of great ambition and confidence
|Usher in a Great Heyday of Songun Korea Full of Confidence in Victory
|Glorify This Year of the 60th Anniversary of the Founding of the DPRK as a Year of Historical Turn Which Will Go Down in the History of the Country
|Glorify this year as a year of a new revolutionary upsurge sounding the general advance
|Bring about a radical turn in the people’s standard of living by accelerating the development of light industry and agriculture once again this year that marks the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea
|Bring about a Decisive Turn in the Improvement of the People’s Standard of Living and the Building of a Great, Prosperous and Powerful Country by Accelerating the Development of Light Industry Once Again This Year
|Glorify This Year 2012 as a Year of Proud Victory, a Year When an Era of Prosperity Is Unfolding, True to the Instructions of the Great General Kim Jong Il
Finally, despite all well-founded reservations against such Pyongyangology, I find it useful to count the frequency of key terms such as socialism, juche, or songun. If applied with care and in the context of actual events and verbal messages, such an approach can improve our understanding of the leader’s mindset. A look at Table 2 indicates that the 2014 speech has much less standard ideological vocabulary. Interpretations thereof will vary, but a fact is a fact.
Table 2: Word count of key vocabulary in the 2013 and 2014 New Year speeches
|Kim Il Sung
|Kim Jong Il
The 2014 Speech
Interestingly enough, Kim’s speech starts off with a mystery. He largely follows the 2013 blueprint of first paying tribute to his ancestors, his people, Koreans abroad, and friendly foreigners. But immediately after praising his two predecessors, Kim extends his tribute to “the martyrs who dedicated their precious lives (kokwihan saengŭl pach’in ryŏlsatŭl 고귀한 생을 바친 렬사들) to national defense and socialist construction last year.” Who is he referring to at such a prominent place right at the beginning of his speech? We are left wondering since this is the first time these “martyrs” have been mentioned. Was there an incident last year we don’t know about? Or does Kim Jong Un refer to the October 2013 loss of submarine Chaser 233?
Then Kim Jong Un looks back at the achievements of 2013 before he turns to outlining his grand plans for 2014. He characterizes 2013 by reference to the new line of simultaneously building the economy and defending socialism, the latter being a euphemism for expanding his nuclear and ballistic missile forces. This policy, called pyŏngjin nosŏn or “line of moving two things forward in tandem,” was in fact originally created by Kim Il Sung in the 1960s when he declared his independence from China and the Soviet Union. At least back then it was the attempt to make a virtue out of necessity; by subscribing neither to Moscow’s nor Beijing’s position, Kim Il Sung simultaneously lost support from both for his economic and defense program and thus had to pursue them in tandem. Is Kim Jong Un under similar pressure after having annoyed China?
Kim Jong Un then goes through the list of the most remarkable achievements during the past year. This contains nothing new, but is interesting for the choices he makes. After expressing his satisfaction over the successful celebration of two anniversaries—the 60th of the Korean War armistice and the 65th of the Party foundation—Kim Jong Un talks about the Jang Song Thaek affair: “we took the resolute measure of removing the factionalists lurking in the Party.” Given the detailed front page reporting in the Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun in early December 2013, it is not surprising that the case would find its entry into the New Year speech, but nevertheless noteworthy that dissent within the top leadership is considered important enough to be included in an otherwise very positive, triumphant, visionary statement.
Kim’s style in making his pronouncements is much more aggressive and outspoken than in the 2013 New Year’s speech. That is reflected not only in the above statements but also in his disdain for the (American) imperialists against whom a “brilliant victory” in the “acute showdown” was achieved. In this context, particularly striking is his explicit mention of nuclear weapons—six times in his speech—while the word did not appear once in 2013. This is disturbing and suggests that Kim is willing to brandish the nuclear deterrent more actively as a political tool. One hidden message may be that we can expect further “progress” in related research and production such as more nuclear and missile tests, the miniaturization of a nuclear device to produce a warhead, and uranium enrichment.
Kim’s more explicit emphasis on defense continues although it is fairly routine. Just as in 2013, he mentions scientists and technicians first—this time, however, he explicitly refers to those researchers who work “in the sector of defence industry” (emphasis added). Praise of the military and the Internal Security Forces follows.
As in 2013, Kim stresses the “unfavorable natural climate” as the working environment for the country’s agriculture. Over the years, this argument has become a standard excuse of the leadership for low yields, although we should note that the WFP recently reported yet another year of production increases in 2013, bringing the combined output closer to the threshold of over 5 million tons of rice equivalent that form the minimal amount to be self-sufficient in staple food. But the food issue is still not resolved.
The fact that the builders and construction projects are mentioned numerous times shows that construction is a priority policy of the Kim Jong Un government. My own travels in the DPRK confirm that the whole country is going through a construction boom. A quantitative analysis supports this view: the term construction, used in various contexts, appears 17 times in the 2014 speech as compared to only 5 times in 2013. While the usual suspects of 2013 receive attention—the new Korean War museum, the Munsu water park and the Masikryong ski resort, other less publicized projects are also mentioned by Kim, such as the Sepo plateau.
The latter is connected to husbandry, a new economic policy that Kim highlights as a means to solve the food problem. The newly created Sepo plateau is to serve as grazing land for cattle. The rationale behind this policy is the idea that some animals consume the same food as by humans, such as corn, wheat or potatoes. Earlier rumors that beef is supposed to substitute for pork and poultry in North Korea cannot yet be confirmed, but if true, would transform meat production substantially. The history of socialist countries is full of examples where similar grand plans resulted in great disasters; this topic thus deserves closer attention in the future.
Finally, another striking feature of the 2014 speech is Kim proudly talking about the gold medals won by DPRK athletes. The desire to turn North Korea into a major sports power is not new, but it seems to be of particular interest to the young leader. As an East German, I am reminded of my own home country that invested massively in sports and, with only 17 million people, was able to achieve remarkable international recognition. North Korea has ignored this option for many decades but Kim now seems intent on boosting the North’s soft power through successful participation in international sports events. Demands to use “sports science and technology” and for “making sports mass-based” as tools to achieve better results are exactly the strategy used by the East Berlin government until it finally collapsed.
Kim Looks Ahead
Turning to the outlook for 2014, Kim Jong Un lays out his vision for the country.
An important departure in his 2014 speech is that Kim, rather than starting his outlook on the coming year by emphasizing at great length “the road of juche” and the achievements and legacies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as he did in 2013, begins his future vision by talking about the economy. The ideological part is of course not omitted—in the end, this is still North Korea—but it was moved further back.
The economic credo of Kim Jong Un seems to be a self-supporting economy, i.e. a maximum level of autarky. The vision that shines through in his speech is that of a pragmatist who wants to make the system work, not of a reformer. Kim’s emphasis on real life is reflected in his mentioning of a number of key economic sectors and plans for the future: agriculture, construction, and science and technology.
On agriculture, he stresses the need to fulfill production targets, which implies a looming staple food shortage. But he also goes beyond that and demands to increase the output of meat, vegetables and mushrooms. This would help address one of the WFP’s findings that the diet of most North Koreans is not only low in calories but is also one-sidedly consisting of carbohydrates, lacking fat and protein.
On construction, Kim Jong Un makes it clear that the boom observed in 2013 is going to continue. In addition to the construction of entertainment facilities and structures to “improve the people’s living conditions,” he specifically mentions power stations, livestock farming bases, a fruit farm, a waterway and tideland reclamation. More dwelling houses and dormitories will be built, as well as education, health care and cultural facilities. The beautification of Pyongyang is to be continued, but also the rest of the country is mentioned. This is in line with my observations during recent trips to the DPRK and runs counter to allegations that only the capital is benefiting—although it definitely benefits the most.
In addition to the important role of science and technology in connection with the defense industry and modernization of the military equipment, Kim also talks about the need to build a knowledge-based economy. This is not necessarily new but is another important clue to the leadership’s mindset. Instead of systemic reform, technological modernization is supposed to provide the desired boost in productivity. Students of classical socialist economies will find this familiar: productivity is low and capital is lacking, therefore technological innovation is supposed to be the magic wand that makes a failed system work.
Among the many other economic sectors that are included in the future outlook, power generation received particular attention. For the first time in a New Year’s message we find the demand to save energy. This demand is stated explicitly: “Economizing is precisely production and a manifestation of patriotism.” Moreover, it corresponds with stories I have heard about massive increases in private electricity consumption through the use of air conditioners in summer and electric heaters in winter. This is an unwanted side effect of growing middle class incomes and more consumption. Alternative means of energy production, such as hydraulic resources, wind, geothermal, solar and “other kinds of natural energy” are also stressed. For about two years now, I have noted a large number of solar panels mounted on windows and roofs of residential houses and apartments, and also a few smaller windmills in the country side.
Light industry and consumer goods are duly mentioned, but this time without great enthusiasm. As long as the economy is state-owned and profits matter less than equal distribution and maintaining a minimum standard of living, this makes sense. One wonders, however, whether private consumption can really be curtailed without creating discontent in particular among the growing middle class.
Another conspicuous aspect of the speech on the economic front is the demand to “bolster the fishing sector”. Providing fresh fish to the citizens of Pyongyang was the first public measure taken by Kim Jong Un right after his announcement as successor in December 2011. In the last days of December 2013, he had meetings with “activists in fisheries” of the army and handed out medals and other gestures of his deep appreciation. Now fisheries even make it into the New Year speech. For whatever reason, Kim Jong Un seems to be particularly keen on this area.
The next points in his speech are brief and of a more general nature. They include the usual issues: education, culture, sports, public health, art and literature. They are all important enough to be listed, but obviously are not on top of the leader’s priority list.
While Kim Jong Un regards “strengthening defence capabilities” as “the most important of all state affairs,” it is mentioned relatively late in the 2014 New Year speech. The ways to implement this political goal are described in rather general terms, which stand in marked contrast to the much more specific ideas on how to improve the economy. It is hard to say how this should be interpreted; my take is that defense is important, but that is a matter of course while economic modernization is of more immediate and crucial importance.
Kim returns to his new more precise style when talking about the defense industry, indicating that something new is in store. And indeed: he demands that military hardware “of our own style” is built that is “light, unmanned, intelligent and of high precision.” In other words, Kim seems to want to build drones. The same formulation has first been used in a Kim Jong Un speech marking the Day of Songun in August 2013.
Only now, after having discussed the economy and defense at great length, does Kim Jong Un highlight the political and ideological strength of North Korea as well as its institutions. This has been part of all New Year messages. It is thus not surprising that this subject is part of the 2014 speech, not least given the ongoing solidification of the Kim Jong Un rule and the much publicized Jang Song Thaek affair. The issue is not, however, taking center stage. It is one point among many on a long list. We find familiar terms like single-hearted unity, monolithic leadership system and mental strength of the masses. Demands to “approach with political awareness even the slightest phenomenon and element that infringe on the unity of the Party and revolutionary ranks and undermine their single-hearted unity, and eliminate them in a thoroughgoing way” can be interpreted as the harbinger of more purges in lower levels of the hierarchy. Other formulations in his speech warning about “alien ideologies” and “decadent lifestyles” as well as the “enemy’s schemes for ideological and cultural infiltration” indicate that outside information and ideas keep coming into the country despite efforts to stop them.
No North Korean New Year’s Day speech or editorial is complete without talking about unification. Given previous experiences, I suggest care in overemphasizing what may sound like North Korea holding out an olive branch. All the formulations have been used before, and suggestions to stop calling each other names are accompanied by demands that South Korea drops its hostile policy and other criticisms of the current government in Seoul. What I found more remarkable is that this 2014 New Year speech is one of the few documents without detailed mention of the “June 15 joint declaration and the October 4 declaration,” a formulation that has been repeated like a mantra for the past years until very recently. Kim Jong Un only talks about the need to “respect and implement the declarations with sincerity.” It is too early to see this as a new trend, but this point deserves our further attention in particular since the two declarations serve as the legal foundation for inter-Korean economic cooperation. The Kaesong Industrial Complex has not been mentioned by Kim Jong Un. Given the uncomfortable dominance of China in North Korea’s external economic relations, Pyongyang surely has a strategic interest in developing its exchanges with other partners. Perhaps this is the reason why Kim Jong Un foregoes overly offensive language regarding the South Korean president in his speech.
Kim Jong Un ends on a disturbing note. He implicitly warns that US-South Korean military exercises are a direct military threat against his country that can lead to an all-out nuclear war. The US will “never be safe” in case another war breaks out in Korea. Considering that the annual military maneuvers “Foal Eagle” and “Key Resolve” are coming up in February and March, we should brace ourselves for another round of at least verbal escalation in the coming weeks.