Kim Jong-un's 2017 New Year's Address

Kent Boydston (PIIE)



Kim Jong-un’s 2017 New Year’s Address followed a similar pattern that emphasized party unity, the predominance of military advancement to safeguard the fatherland and calls for economic development across a spectrum of industries. In his speech this year, as opposed to his 2016 address, Kim explicitly mentioned nuclear tests—noting the alleged success of the H-bomb and nuclear warhead tests—as well as claiming that North Korea was entering the “final stage of preparation for the test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile.”

(For full text of the speech see here, and if you want to watch Kim Jong-un deliver it see here—thanks to Curtis Melvin for the assist. A brief round-up of the previous five New Year’s Addresses is included at the bottom.)

While Kim’s ICBM comment may not have been the crux of his speech (in fact, the KCNA summary of the address didn’t even mention it) it certainly drew the most attention from foreign media (Yonhap and CNN) and even President-elect Donald Trump who Tweeted:

Christiane Amanpour at CNN ran with a similar tweet “Kim Jong-un starts 2017 w grim promise: a missile to reach U.S. That, topped with a nuke, is a serious game-changer.” The Guardian similarly attributed to Kim claims that he was close to testing a missile capable of reaching American shores. But Kim Jong-un didn’t specifically name the United States in his New Year’s Address when briefly mentioning ICBM development, even if the inference that a North Korean ICBM could reach parts of the US is correct. Nevertheless, South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck called Trump’s tweet “significant since it is his first mention of North Korea’s nuclear program” and a “clear warning” to Pyongyang. As Cha Du-hyeogn points out in her analysis of Kim’s address at NKNews, in Kim’s 2016 address he did not say much about the series of weapons tests to come, but they came anyway. It is, therefore, hard to read too deeply into the tea leaves for hints at specific military tests or actions.

On the economy, Kim’s speech offered standard calls for improving production in various industries without offering concrete proposals. His speech also suggested a clear emphasis on harnessing science and technology to advance the economy: “The strength of self-reliance and self-development is that of science and technology, and the shortcut to implementing the five-year strategy is to give importance and precedence to science and technology.” He then calls upon enterprises to conduct a “proactive mass-based technological innovation drive, propelling economic development with valuable sci-tech achievements conducive to expanded production and the improvement of business operation and management.”

But more interesting than his meandering platitudes on socialist economy building, were his discussion of South Korean politics and statements clearly directed toward South Korean politicians themselves. Kim chose to address the Park Geun-hye scandal in the following way:

“Last year, south Korea witnessed a massive anti-‘government’ struggle spreading far and wide to shake the reactionary ruling machinery to its foundations. This resistance involving all south Korean people, which left an indelible mark in the history of their struggle, was an outburst of pent-up grudge and indignation against the conservative regime that had been resorting to fascist dictatorship, anti-popular policy, sycophantic and traitorous acts and confrontation with their compatriots.”

Kim framed the protests in the context of a Marxist class struggle but did not specifically mention Park’s impeachment. The sensitivity of the Park scandal to the North Korean leadership should not be understated and there are two main reasons why.

First, North Korean citizens are increasingly aware of the outside world and are cognizant of corruption in their own country. Emphasizing the peaceful and democratic process through which Park was impeached could encourage North Koreans to question why they themselves do not have such options. Over-emphasizing the power of the masses is not in the regime’s interests. As in his 2016 speech, in 2017 Kim Jong-un again acknowledged the problem of corruption in the DPRK, specifically the need to “wage an intensive struggle to root out abuses of power, bureaucratism and corruption that spoil the flower garden of single-hearted unity.”

Secondly, the North Korean leadership must be concerned with overplaying their victory in Park Geun-hye’s collapse. The South is in a time of deep political uncertainty and the majority of the leading contenders are pro-North Korea engagement-leaning candidates. Although North Korea isn’t at the top of South Korean voters’ concerns, if Pyongyang gets a preferred candidate into the Blue House there is great potential for long-term strategic gain through a Sunshine redux policy, or something similar.

Accordingly, Kim spends just one paragraph on Park Geun-hye’s political struggles and follows it immediately with ten on inter-Korean cooperation. Kim recalls the upcoming 45th anniversary of the inter-Korean July 4 Joint Statement and 10th anniversary of the October 4 Declaration. He suggests, “this year we should open up a broad avenue to independent reunification through a concerted effort of the whole nation” and claims, “we are consistent in our stand to safeguard the security of the compatriots and peace of the country without fighting with the fellow countrymen.” He exhorts “all the fellow countrymen in the north, in the south and abroad” to “do something to make this year a meaningful year of a new phase in independent reunification…”

In a clear message to politicians in South Korea, Kim states, “Any politician, if he or she remains a passive onlooker to the current deadlock between the two sides, can neither claim to be fully discharging his or her responsibility and role for the nation nor enjoy public support.” This statement is somewhat reminiscent of Park Geun-hye’s September 2016 statements directed to North Korean authorities calling for unification, although in the context, Park’s comments could be interpreted as veiled solicitations for high-level North Korean defections; Kim’s statements couldn’t hope to go that far.

As Cha Du-hyeogn mentioned, Kim Jong-un interestingly decided to portray himself as a humble leader in his address, even acknowledging some form of fallibility, claiming: “I have spent the whole year with regrets and a guilty conscience, to see my ability failing to reach what I have planned for the people. This year, I have made up my mind to spur on to greater efforts and to devote all of myself to the people.”

Last year saw reasons that could portend internal North Korean instability: intensified sanctions (UNSCR 2270 and 2321), the mass restaurant defection incident, and other high-profile defections. But Kim Jong-un’s fallibility aside, nothing in his new year’s address suggests major shifts, instability, or nervousness in Pyongyang.

Witness to Transformation Analysis of Previous New Year’s Speeches

2016. This speech was made in anticipation of the Party Congress, and appeared to prioritize the economy: mentions of nuclear weapons were surprisingly limited and the speech broke no new ground on North-South relations. But the year was subsequently marked by two nuclear tests and a race to develop missile technologies. Our conclusion: the speech signaled that the leadership thought the byungjin line was working, even if internal security received pointed attention.

2015. We found some small references to what might be called “reform-by-default”: demands by the government that light manufacturing fend for itself. The speech also has a defensive tone, with a litany of the hostile policies of the US. Although making an offer for North-South talks, Pyongyang left itself the out of linking them to the joint exercises; despite efforts by the Park administration, nothing materialized.

2014. We deemed this speech “mildly hopeful” based on greater attention to economic issues and a North-South proposal, analyzed in a subsequent post. That proposal did lead to the high-level talks of February and family visits, but progress quickly stalled.

2013. The first Kim Jong Un New Year’s speech—in lieu of an editorial--deemed disappointing because of it’s “Masik pass” emphasis on pushing forward on all fronts. On the foreign policy front, particular emphasis was placed on the precedent of the last two summits but without the specificity of the 2015 speech.

2012. This editorial was absorbed with the death of Kim Jong Il. But with food issues constituting a short-term worry, we analyzed the role that food had played in past speeches and noted a correlation between shortages and the priority given to the issue.

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