Commentary on Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech on January 1 has understandably focused almost exclusively on what it means for international relations in general and the US and South Korea in particular. However, Kim’s speech revealed some interesting insights into the shape of domestic politics and the economy that are worth exploring.
The speech was framed within the successes of last year. The 2013 Byungjin Line of promoting two fronts—economy and a nuclear deterrent—simultaneously had finally been delivered. The country lives under the protective umbrella of its nuclear deterrent and can turn its focus to the “higher goal” of economic construction.
Kim acknowledged that challenges to this domestic agenda certainly exist, noting especially the misallocation of labor, lack of expertise and poor productivity. In his speech, he instructed a reallocation of labor and resources, both for the military and the Party, to start to address these barriers to success. He also indicated that contingency plans were being explored in case a second summit with Trump fails to set US-DPRK relations back on track.
“Swords to Ploughshares”
As Kim said regarding the outcome of last year’s speech:
“The munitions industry, in hearty response to our Party’s militant call for concentrating all efforts on economic construction, produced a variety of farm machinery, construction equipment, cooperative products and consumer goods, thereby giving an impetus to economic development and the improvement of the people’s living standards.”
This year, he instructed that the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is to be increasingly deployed as the vanguard in infrastructure development. They have always been a reserve army of labor of the last resort, such as routinely supporting the sowing and harvesting seasons. In the past, the KPA has been used to plan and execute major projects, the most famous of which was the building of the West Sea Barrage (1981-1986). Now they are to be a regular labor corps for “gigantic” and “huge” construction projects relying on the North’s “own technical forces and resources” and “better quality” materials.
Focus on Energy Generation
The country’s principal economic bottleneck is the desperate need for a massive increase in electricity production. A first step is the renovation and modernization of the supply industry. By singling out the Pukchang Thermal Power Complex for praise all the others inevitably lie in its shadow. Yet the most aggravating problem is fuel shortages. Under the current sanctions regime, the short-term solution—and by no means good news for the climate-change lobby—to the electricity shortage is massive increases in productivity in the coal sector. “Only when coal is mass-produced can we resolve the problem of electricity and satisfy the demand for fuel and power for different sectors of the national economy including the metallurgical industry.” Instead of exporting coal supplies, the industry’s first priority is instead to make regular deliveries to the domestic thermal power stations to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, outages to industry. “The working class in the coal-mining industry” are the “lifeline of the self-supporting economy.” They and their industry must be given all the material help and technical resources necessary to fulfill their targets.
While hydroelectric plants merit a passing mention, in reality, the North is close to maximizing the use of the water resources available with both floods and droughts sharply reducing output. In the longer term, Kim argued that the country needs to “create a capacity for generating tidal, wind and atomic power under a far-reaching plan.” The last underlines Pyongyang’s perception that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula does not preclude ambitions to be a civil nuclear power. The ongoing construction of their indigenous Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center suggests that light water reactors will form the backbone of the industry, harking back perhaps to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) from the 1990s.
The specific reference to the niche technology of “tidal power” matches well with the references scattered throughout the speech to “gigantic” and “huge” construction projects relying “on our own technical forces and resources.” Tidal power potential has a very limited global footprint. France has a small tidal power station across the La Rance estuary and, until the UK’s current conservative government opted to resurrect the construction of further nuclear power stations, there was an ambitious plan for a huge barrage across the River Severn that would have produced the output of four to five nuclear stations.
The Korean Peninsula’s west coast is one of the world’s most attractive locations for tidal power. This would enable Pyongyang to construct enormous tidal power barrages equivalent in generating power to several conventional plants that would allow for fully indigenous electricity production without external inputs after completion. The KPA’s experience of constructing the “West Sea Barrage” would stand them in good stead for such a “gigantic” project. A decade or so ago, the Workers’ Party of Korea organized—with my assistance—visits from UK “tidal power” experts involved in the abortive Severn Tidal Barrage scheme and more recently attempted to invite them to return.
Heavy industry gets a mixed report. The Kim Chaek and Hwanghae Iron and Steel Complex get positive mentions in Kim’s speech, while the chemical industry—and metallurgical industry—is collectively dammed with faint praise for making “efforts” but expectations to do better, especially in the production of phosphate fertilizers once there is a more reliable electricity supply. Hungnam’s favored February 8 Vinalon Complex is urged to further step-up production. The need for indigenous fertilizer production is self-evident while the metallurgical industry offers added value to the North’s exports by shipping metal rather than ore. As for the scratchy “vinalon” fiber, it’s the quintessential juche technology—invented by the North and produced entirely from indigenous materials.
Education and Building Expertise
To improve expertise and efficiency, Kim placed great emphasis on a need for revolutionary turn in science and education. Talent must be trained in “core technologies” and marriages organized between Universities and Colleges and Enterprises. Will merit start to challenge nepotism? Kim emphasized, “talented personnel, science and technology are our major strategic resources and weapons with which to bring about a great leap forward in socialist construction” to ensure a cost-effective, self-supporting economy.
Despite a sideswipe about the need to eradicate the abuse of power and corruption in its ranks, policing and delivery is to be the responsibility of the Party. One tactic in recent years has been for the Party School to dispatch officials “deep amongst the masses, sharing boarding and lodging” and immersing themselves in the “pulsating reality” of factory and farm to learn from and motivate the “masters of farming” and industry. This trend is heavily endorsed and likely to expand. Expect more Party contacts to “disappear” into the industrial complex and countryside and reappear chain-smoking with a nuanced understanding of the realities and constraints on the ground.
There is no question the Party is now on top as well as on tap with constant references to its primacy. Kim emphasized in his speech that the KPA is to “defend the Party and revolution and the security of the country and the people and continuously perform miraculous feats at all sites of socialist construction.” Echoing that sentiment, the People’s Internal Security Forces are there to protect Party, system and people, in that order.
Delivering peace and prosperity to the Korean Peninsula is the stated goal for both Pyongyang and Seoul. Kim underscored this mandate with:
“When north and south join hands firmly and rely on the united strength of the fellow countrymen, no external sanctions and pressure, challenges and trials will be able to hinder us….We will never tolerate the interference and intervention of outside forces who stand in the way of national reconciliation, unity and reunification with the design to subordinate inter-Korean relations to their tastes and interests.”
The “dog that didn’t bark” is the “end-of-war” declaration. Last summer, Pyongyang complained long and hard that Washington had not delivered on its promise to sign a political declaration ending the Korean War. In Kim’s New Year’s speech, this declaration failed to get even a mention. Pyongyang seems to have moved on, from Washington at least. Kim stated, “it is also needed to actively promote multi-party negotiations for replacing the current ceasefire on the Korean peninsula with a peace mechanism in close contact with the signatories to the armistice agreement so as to lay a lasting and substantial peace-keeping foundation.” The concept of a bilateral US-DPRK declaration signed by Seoul and Beijing has now become a multilateral proposition and negotiation. Which parties would be involved is unclear, but this may have been one of many topics discussed between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping during Kim’s birthday visit to Beijing. Given Tokyo’s unhelpful attitude, it is unlikely they will get a seat at the table while both the Iran Deal’s JPCOA and the armistice agreement itself suggest a potential role for the UN alongside the remaining five of the original Six-Party Talk members.
Kim still wants “to forge a new relationship” with Washington, and “if the US responds…bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace…” It is not so clear, however, whether North Korea still sees the process to “build a lasting and durable peace regime and advance towards complete denuclearization,” the sole franchise of Washington.
Why is this important for the domestic economic agenda? Until now Pyongyang has rigidly adhered publicly to parallel bilateral negotiations, one with Washington looking for a peace settlement accompanied by sanctions relief and a second with Seoul on economic cooperation. Now with the potential for the first set of negotiations to go multilateral, the second set may follow suit, increasing pressure on Moon to put clear blue water between Seoul and Washington with respect to “maximum pressure.”
An 8 km long system of dams, three locks and 36 sluices near Nampo capable of handling 2,000 to 50,000 ton ships.