After having completed three years of mourning his father Kim Jong Il’s death last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has become more confident and reconciliatory, but at times ambivalent and contradictory. On January 1, 2015, his third annual New Year’s speech was broadcast across the nation on Korean Central Television. The speech is of great significance not only because it offers his own assessment of the country’s performance in 2014, but also because it reveals his overall direction and guidelines for the party, the state, the military and the people in the conduct of ideology and in internal and external policymaking. For outsiders, the New Year’s address is a valuable vantage point from which to decipher the leadership’s thinking in this secluded country.
Kim Jong Un gave high marks to the country’s performance in 2014, saying that “last year was a year of brilliant triumph.” He hailed a remarkable increase in national defense capabilities and war-fighting efficiency, and also spoke positively about the national economy. “Even in the difficult situation and adverse conditions of last year, an upswing was brought about in production in different sectors including agriculture, fishery and the chemical and coal-mining industries, opening up bright prospects for the building of an economic giant and the improvement of people’s living standards,” Kim said. In addition, his speech underscored his consolidation of political power after the purge of Jang Song Thaek, through the use of such phrases as the “solidification of the harmonious whole of the Party and the masses of the people,” and the “strengthening of purity and might of the revolutionary ranks.” Kim’s confidence is well-founded, since politically, military and economically he is in a stronger position than he was a year ago.
Sometimes, though, the most significant part of a North Korean speech is what is left out. With that in mind, the most remarkable change I detected is a potential redirection of North Korea’s leading ideology. In the previous New Year’s speeches, Kim Jong Un made it clear that his rule is founded on two pillars of governance, namely Kim Il Sungism and Kim Jong Ilism. But in this latest New Year’s address, these ideological edifices are not explicitly mentioned. Only the strengthening of monolithic leadership, the revolutionary cause of juche, and the importance of songun (military-first) politics were routinely mentioned. This could be a sign of the advent of a new guiding ideology under the initiative of Kim Jong Un. What exactly that new ideology may be has not yet been articulated, but I think we are seeing the groundwork being laid.
Kim’s remarks about the defense sector reveal another interesting aspect of his speech. While his overall emphasis on the military is no different from previous speeches, his statements on “the Party’s four-point strategic line and three major tasks for increasing military strength” are new elements. While he doesn’t clarify what they mean, they can, however, be seen as new defense doctrines that Kim Jong Un formulated in the last year. According to reliable sources, the four-point strategic line is believed to refer to: the strengthening of combat and political training (rejection of formalism, intensification of war-like combat training, and promotion of monolithic command); the transformation of the Korean People’s Army’s rear area activities (providing better living conditions for soldiers and linking military supply to local villages and homes); the preparation of all people’s combat readiness (swift mobilization of home reserve forces such as Worker-Peasant Red Guards and the Young Red Guards); and the enhancement of the defense industry (indigenization, modernization, and technological upgrading). Meanwhile, the “three tasks” mentioned in the speech are understood to be “defending the leader, system and people.” These clues can help us understand changing military doctrines under Kim Jong Un.
Kim’s emphasis on improvement of inter-Korean relations represents another noticeable shift. Unlike his past New Year’s speeches, Kim devoted almost one-third of his lengthy talk to issues related to North-South relations. Extraordinarily, he said, “it is possible to resume the suspended high-level contacts and hold sectoral talks, if the South Korean authorities are sincere in their stand towards improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue.” He even suggested the possibility of a North-South Korean summit, saying, “there is no reason why we should not hold a summit meeting if the atmosphere and environment for it are created.” Kim justified his proposal for dialogue and negotiation as a means to overcome the tragedy of national division on the 70th anniversary of national liberation.
The North Korean leader touched on a similar theme in last year’s New Year’s address, but he seems more forthcoming this year. Nevertheless, preconditions are attached. In order to create the atmosphere and environment conducive to inter-Korean talks, he called for the suspension of ROK-US joint military drills; respect for mutual sovereignty and dignity, including preventing the distribution of anti-Kim Jong Un propaganda leaflets; and the abandonment of Seoul’s intention for reunification by absorption. While Seoul has taken an official position that it does not intend to seek unification by absorption, it would be difficult for the Park Geun-hye government to accommodate the other two demands because conservative forces in South Korea, which constitute the backbone of Park’s domestic political support, would vehemently oppose the suspension or weakening of the annual ROK-US joint military training, as well as the prevention of propaganda leaflet distribution.
Alongside some of these novelties, there was plenty of continuity in Kim’s New Year’s speech. As long as American hostile policy persists, Pyongyang will adhere to “the military-first [songun] politics and the line of promoting the two fronts [economic development and nuclear weapons] simultaneously.” As in the past, emphasis was placed on the promotion of agricultural production, animal husbandry and fishery, as well as light industry and the energy sector. He also urged the Cabinet and other state organs to “make proactive efforts to establish the economic management method of our style as demanded by reality, so that all the economic organs and enterprises can conduct their business activities creatively on their own initiative.” This implies greater room for decentralization of economic activities and market mechanisms. Kim also pledged to “expand and develop foreign relations in a multilateral and positive way.”
Despite containing some promising signs, Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech reflects a reactive, tentative and conditional frame of mind, and a hesitant leader. Resumption of inter-Korean talks is contingent on Seoul’s willingness to suspend military drills, respect North Korea’s sovereignty and dignity, and alteration of its unification policy. Pyongyang’s denuclearization is also conditioned on the removal of America’s hostile policy. Moreover, the speech also seems contradictory. No matter how reformist North Korea is, it is impossible for the North to revitalize its national economy and to improve its people’s living standards without the injection of external assistance and foreign capital. But as long as it adheres to the simultaneous pursuit of two fronts (the “byungjin” line)—economic development and nuclear weapons—it will be nearly impossible to attract foreign capital and assistance. Kim Jong Un, it appears, has no idea how to cut this Gordian knot. The North Korean quagmire is likely to continue this year too.