Another Christmas has been and gone, with gifts given and received. But for policy makers in Seoul and Washington, one big mystery parcel still remains to be unwrapped. What will Kim Jong Un say in his imminent New Year address? Given the time difference, the text of this important speech should be published before the US has yet seen out the old year.
In his last New Year’s address, when tensions were running high after a year of missile tests galore as well as “fire and fury” rhetoric across the inaptly named Pacific, Kim unexpectedly gifted ROK President Moon Jae-in an Olympic olive branch. That ushered in a memorable year of unprecedentedly intense summitry, especially with South Korea, China and the US. All this from a young leader who for his first six years in power had gone nowhere and met none of his global peers. Fear of war on the peninsula gave way to hopes for peace.
That was then, but where are we now? There is a widespread sense that the peace process is stalling, amid skepticism as to how serious or sincere is Pyongyang’s pledge to work toward denuclearization. Much, therefore, hinges on what Kim will say on January 1, and how he says it. His words may determine whether the peace mood continues—or if conversely, the US-DPRK relationship, in particular, deteriorates: whether it reverts back to snarling and missile testing, or even worse. While we know the speech will provide goals and direction for the domestic economy, how he talks about the US and South Korea will provide important clues to his perceptions of the status of these relationships and his expectations for how this year will unfold.
Of course, Kim’s speech is not the only factor—Kim has already provided Moon a personal note expressing his expectations on the inter-Korean front for 2019. No less crucial is his keenly awaited second summit with Donald Trump, who has said he expects this by February—despite the odd lack of working level talks to prepare for it. Then again, the tone and content of Kim’s speech will be a key variable in determining Washington’s stance and strategy in regard to that meeting.
So what can we expect from Kim on January 1? A word of context first. As 38 North readers are doubtless aware, the Leader’s New Year address is a long-established tradition in North Korea. Kim Il Sung began the practice as early as 1946, even before the DPRK was formally founded, and continued for almost half a century until 1994, the year he died. The format then changed. Kim Jong Il abhorred speech-making, so during his reign this was replaced by a joint editorial published in three major daily papers: the Korean Workers’ Party paper Rodong Sinmun, and the less familiar organs of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), Joson Inmingun, and of the Youth League, Chongnyon Jonwi. From 2013, Kim Jong Un—in this, as in much else, imitating his late grandfather—restored the practice of a New Year speech; so this next one will be his seventh.
Whether speech or editorial, these are functional equivalents. Weighty (not to say turgid), this is where the DPRK regime officially reflects upon the year just concluded, and then sets the tone and line for the year ahead. Drafted and worded with great care, these documents merit careful analysis. (The contrast with the current US President’s off-the-cuff tweeting is frankly painful. And yet it is North Korea which often gets glibly tagged as unpredictable.)
To be sure, Kim’s prime audience is domestic. Pity the poor North Korean populace, forced to study these texts in depth—or even memorize the whole damn thing, as Radio Free Asia has twice claimed in 2013 and 2017. Winners get prizes, apparently; but what if you fail? If such pressure continued in 2018, millions of North Koreans now know that “the chemical industry should step up the establishment of the C1 chemical industry, push the projects for catalyst production base and phosphatic fertilizer factory as scheduled, and renovate and perfect the sodium carbonate production line whose starting material is glauberite.” Some might even wonder whether all of that actually got done—and what glauberite is.
As this suggests, these speeches dwell a lot on the economy, in some detail. Alas, it isn’t the right kind of detail. While the DPRK economy is not my focus here, one keeps hoping that one of these years, North Korea will talk economics—supposedly Kim’s priority—the way every other country on the planet does: factually and at least semi-honestly, including real numbers. Premier Pak Pong Ju came close recently, with some interesting if oblique comments on shortcomings in farming due to insufficient reform (that is my paraphrase of his guarded words).
Yet on January 1, the Leader whom Pak serves will probably spout the same old boilerplate as ever. Reform that dare not speak its name is not phony, but by definition it cannot be full reform. The old bottles just don’t fit the new wine. If Kim Jong Un could adopt more modern economic discourse, that would give valuable support to the dwindling ranks of outside observers who laud him as a genuinely new broom.
Realistically, however, the most we can probably expect is that Kim might formalize various hints dropped recently and proclaim a new policy line: replacing byungjin—developing the economy and nuclear weapons in tandem—with economic development as the top priority. But he may not even do that. If, as I suggest below, he feels the need to warn Washington now that his patience is not inexhaustible, then this would be the wrong time to further de-emphasise or downgrade his nuclear deterrent. Kim will surely keep his nuclear powder dry.
On past form, the section of Kim’s speech addressing international issues will come near the end, and will be rather shorter than the preceding main bulk devoted to domestic matters. In 2018, inter-Korean relations took about a quarter of the speech. (Remember, there was at this stage no overture to the US. On the contrary, Kim warned that “the nuclear button is on my office desk all the time.” No doubt readers will recall the 45th President’s dignified riposte.)
A year ago, Kim’s task, or that of his speech-writers, was easier. Crafting an olive branch for an eager and grateful Moon Jae-in to seize was hardly rocket science. This time Kim will have to address both Washington and Seoul. I expect him to focus more on the former, where the problems are. Inter-Korean relations, by contrast, remain in good shape, though Kim failed to visit Seoul as promised and momentum seems to be slowing down of late.
What will Kim say, and what tone will he adopt? Clues can be found in other, lower-level recent North Korean statements, skilfully parsed for 38 North by Robert Carlin. When even serious news outlets often misread North Korea, whether through carelessness or in thrall to extraneous agendas, this service is invaluable. Thus, we know that Pyongyang has a number of bones to pick with Washington, ranging from their different conceptions of denuclearization to sanctions, human rights and more. Such matters have been aired at different times and levels in various DPRK media, as stalking horses. The question now is which of these, if any, the Leader himself will pick up and run with, thereby raising the stakes.
Sticking my neck out, here is what I expect to see. Self-congratulation is a longstanding North Korean trope (one that Trump can surely relate to). Such narcissism is often threadbare, but this time it is justified. Kim Jong Un will not fail to hail the brilliant diplomatic victories—for such they were—that the DPRK chalked up in 2018. If he is wise, he will also compliment the leaders with whom he met while avoiding any implication that they were supplicants, or dazzled by his radiance. Pyongyang media have not always avoided that particular trap.
So far so good. But then…I think Kim will play it more in sorrow than anger. He might say something like this: Despite the DPRK’s magnanimity and pathbreaking moves to begin denuclearization, and notwithstanding the positive attitude of Trump (perhaps Moon too, but this time Kim may treat him as a junior partner and mainly address the US), regrettably both Washington and Seoul still harbor reactionary hostile forces, determined to sabotage peace and undermine progress. We are watching these malignant elements closely. If they are allowed to run amok unchecked, we may be forced to doubt the sincerity of the dialogue partner and take a corresponding measure. (It’s surprisingly easy to write this stuff.)
Might he name names? The Liberty Korea Party (LKP), South Korea’s conservative main opposition party, may well get an explicit kicking. So might Japan, which North Korean media still regularly excoriate as rudely as until recently they also lambasted the US and South Korea. Then again, Kim could well have hopes of Shinzo Abe joining the queue to talk to him, eventually. He may even pull his punches, leaving the insults to lower-level media.
Safer, ergo likelier, is to dwell on issues rather than personalities. Getting into role again, he may state: However, the US side showed deplorable treachery (or insincerity, a milder word; these are the sort of nuances we should look for) on many fronts: imposing fresh sanctions on our blameless leading officials, kicking up a vile racket at the UN about the non-existent human rights issue, all the while insisting gangster-like that the DPRK unilaterally disarm, and so on.
Points to watch here include which of these issues Kim raises, in what terms, and how they are prioritized. The precise setting of volume and tone controls should also be calibrated with care. In the past North Korea quite often screamed itself hoarse with ersatz anger, but we hear less of that nowadays (thankfully). Also, the Leader usually leaves the harshest diatribes to his underlings—unless sorely provoked, as in last year’s unusual riposte to the “dotard” Trump.
Yet I do not entirely rule out Kim using severe tones, if he feels a need to signal that Pyongyang is losing patience. I hope he won’t, this would be a misjudgment, given that the world—not just the US, but also Europe—is losing patience with him. Hitherto Kim has hardly put a foot wrong tactically, but he might overplay his hand. His wisest bet would be to offer some fresh specific solid-seeming concession on denuclearization—such as decommissioning of another facility—to help those who support dialogue, and confound their critics. Perhaps he is saving that for when he next meets Trump.
Or he may not do that either. Ambiguity and procrastination have served Kim well to date, so he may stick with that stance even though it is not viable indefinitely (press reports suggest the US will give him three more months). All in all, Kim’s New Year Speech may disappoint. Last year he gave Moon a late Christmas present, but that was exceptional. This year it feels more like Halloween: trick or treat? Let’s hope I am wrong. We shall know soon enough.
Kim’s speech will appear first, naturally, on North Korea’s own media, e.g., the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). If that is inaccessible, as for instance in the ROK where access to all DPRK sites remains forbidden under the National Security Law, try KCNAWatch (which also has the advantage of being searchable). On past form, other specialist resources will also republish the address in due course, such as 38 North’s affiliate NKLeadershipWatch and also the (US) National Committee on North Korea (NCNK). A full official English translation usually appears simultaneously with the Korean original, or very soon afterwards.
In the spirit of earlier comments at 38 North and elsewhere, let me pose one question. The DPRK economy has changed radically over the past two decades, with de facto marketization now acknowledged in the legal system. Why, then, does official political discourse on the economy remain so obstinately old-school: number-free, hectoring and moralistic, as though nothing had changed since Kim Il Sung?