For his speech at the October 10 celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party, Kim Jong Un seems to have decided that the best path was to walk (relatively) softly and carry a big stick. Apparently, the key for Kim was to demonstrate that not everything had failed during the year, and that the country had made truly remarkable progress in its military capabilities. At the same time, it was clear he wanted to use the party anniversary to reassure the population that the worst is over, and that things will begin to get better soon.
One thing Kim Jong Un didn’t have to say in his speech was “I told you so”—it was clear from the new missile systems rumbling through the square that he had followed through on his declaration last December that the world would witness a new DPRK strategic weapon. In fact, this year’s parade was the culmination of a series of signals Pyongyang had sent throughout the year that the weapons program was ongoing and a continuing priority for the leadership. Underlining that point, at the gala nighttime parade, Kim was flanked on the reviewing stand by two newly minted marshals, one of whom—Ri Pyong Chol—has played a key role in the development of the North’s nuclear and missile forces and steadily rose to the highest ranks of the party over the past nine months. There seems no doubt that the rise of Ri’s status reflected Kim’s continuing focus on the North’s WMD programs. Indeed, that priority had been made clear when a few months ago, Kim made a point of being photographed at an unusually small group meeting of the Central Military Commission talking to leading officials in charge of developing the WMD programs, including the director of the Nuclear Weapons Institute.
Despite the heavy symbolic message driven home by the new missiles at the parade, Kim’s rhetoric was carefully chosen to smooth the rough edges off his warnings of plans for a continued military buildup. The speech, for example, avoided the more abrasive language Pyongyang has employed over the past ten months to suggest that the North’s self-proclaimed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests was over. In fact, in his description of a mature—and still growing—“deterrent” force, Kim seemed to imply those pledges were so far in the rearview mirror that he had no need to mention them.
Underlining that the nuclear force—though he didn’t call it as such—had grown significantly over the past five years, Kim made very clear that there was more to come. Whereas last December he had declared that development of the force would depend on US actions, that position was diluted over the year, and now any sort of rhetorical brake has disappeared. Kim’s new formulation is that “Our military capability is changing in the rate of its growth and in its quality and quantity in our own style and in accordance with our demands and our timetable.” There are new, “upgraded” targets for development, he said, and these are being “steadily” met.
In terms of the threat its nuclear arsenal poses, the North has long sought to portray its force as defensive and primarily a deterrent. Pyongyang has played with the concepts of “no first use” and “no preemptive use,” but even when pledging one or the other, has always in the next sentence diluted the pledge and made it conditional, as one would expect of a country not sure that its deterrent was ironclad. Kim did the same in his October 10 speech.
Our war deterrent, which is intended to defend the rights to independence and existence of our state and safeguard peace in the region, will never be abused or used as a means for preemptive strike. (Note: the vernacular might more accurately be translated as “will by no means be misused and will never be used preemptively.”)
But, if, and if, any forces infringe upon the security of our state and attempt to have recourse to military force against us, I will enlist all our most powerful offensive strength in advance to punish them.
In his speech, Kim portrayed the main reason for the country’s difficulties as the weather and COVID-19, making virtually no mention of sanctions. Kim made no explicit reference to the US, speaking only in passing of unnamed “hostile forces.” He kept his references to external threats vague, giving him considerable flexibility in choosing a diplomatic path in the coming months. (Pyongyang undoubtedly took special note of a Yonhap interview with an advisor to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign that put some distance between US President Barack Obama’s North Korea policy and the what a potential Biden approach would be, even going so far as to say that a President Biden would be prepared to meet with Kim Jong Un.)
Kim’s brief comment on the possibility of reengaging South Korea appears well-calculated to fit in line with an unfolding approach over the past month. According to the Blue House, on September 12, Kim sent a letter in reply to ROK President Moon Jae-in—not previously reported by either side—saying, “I look forward to the days when these hours of this terrible year have quickly gone by and good things await us one after another.” That more positive tone was then included in a message from the party’s United Front Department (UFD) to the Blue House in response to the September 22 incident in the West Sea (Yellow Sea). The UFD message, not carried by DPRK media, ended by citing Kim directly:
Comrade Kim Jong Un, chairman of the State Affairs Commission, has asked to deliver the message that he feels very sorry to President Moon Jae-in and to compatriots in the South—who are suffering from the threat of COVID-19—for adding great disappointment by the unsavory incident that unexpectedly happened in our territorial waters, let alone helping [the South Koreans suffering from COVID-19].
A day later, in an authoritative Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) report, Pyongyang tiptoed toward publicly lifting the veil on Kim’s more positive position, noting that:
We also took more necessary security measures in order to make sure that no more incident spoiling the relations of trust and respect between the north and the south would happen in any case, true to the intention of our Supreme Leadership.
Slipping Past the Past
October 10 was a major anniversary of the Workers’ Party, yet in his speech, Kim Jong Un made almost no reference to either of whom have traditionally been portrayed as the essential, central figures in the history of the party—Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Neither name appears, and then only cursorily, until the second half of the speech. Reinforcing the impression that this treatment was very deliberate, there were no reports in DPRK media of Kim Jong Un making the obligatory visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to pay respects to either of his predecessors on the anniversary. All of this fits with mounting evidence that for over a year, Kim Jong Un has been moving to upgrade his own, separate identity as the leader, no longer standing on the shoulders of his father or his grandfather. Indeed, from early in his rule, Kim has been indicating it was time to turn the page, not to be wedded to the past but to look ahead, meaning an ability to accept new policies suited to the “new reality.”
Kim has often before openly acknowledged personal shortcomings, but the humility and candor of his party anniversary speech marked a step beyond that. At one point, while mentioning the army’s contribution to recovery from the multiple typhoons that hit the country over the summer, Kim visibly choked up. Even in a system where the leader is expected to demonstrate fatherly concern and warmth toward the people, this open display of emotion is extremely unusual.
“Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Delivers Speech at Military Parade,” KCNA, October 10, 2020.
Byun Duk-kun, “(Yonhap Interview) Biden will meet Kim Jong-un if necessary to denuclearize N. Korea: adviser,” Yonhap, October 11, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20201009002100325.
Quote translated into English from “남북 정상 친서 관련 서훈 국가안보실장 브리핑,” Blue House, September 25, 2020, http://www.korea.kr/news/blueHouseView.do?newsId=148878304.
Quote translated into English from “김정은 ‘불미스러운 일…문대통령·남녘동포에 대단히 미안’(종합),” Yonhap, September 25, 2020, https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20200925101551001.
“S. Korean Authorities Warned against Intrusion,” KCNA, September 27, 2020.