After a homey introduction—wishing "the families across the country good health, happiness, success and prosperity"—Kim Jong-un quickly got to the first of the three main points in his New Year's Address. The year before he announced that the country had "entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile [sic]." That task is now complete, with the regime having accomplished the "historic cause of perfecting the national nuclear forces." What remains at this point is survivability. Claiming fundamental design problems are solved, what is left to do at this point is to "mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles … to give a spur to the efforts for deploying them for action."
Despite the press focus on the nuclear button on Kim Jong-un's desk, the speech's strategic orientation was almost entirely defensive. Despite some ambiguity in one passage of the speech (reproduced and discussed in more detail below), Kim largely stressed the deterrent rather than offensive use of the nuclear program and dropped a reference to pre-emption in the 2017 speech. In an interesting personalization of the conflict, Kim concludes that "In no way would the United States dare to ignite a war against me and our country."
Using adversity to rally subjects is standard fare in New Year's speeches, but is somewhat more pressing as sanctions ratchet up. Although the speech makes reference to the wisdom of the byungjin line, there was the subtlest of hints that the emphasis between the military and economic pillars of the policy could now shift: that the "great historic achievement" of perfecting the nuclear forces has "opened up bright prospects for the building of a prosperous country." Although there are no more references to Juche in this year's speech than last, the significance of references to self-reliance and self-sufficiency has no doubt increased. As last year but with somewhat more emphasis, the litany of sectoral accomplishments was laced with the need to overcome the challenges of a more difficult external environment.
Perhaps in anticipation of deepening trouble, the speech made open reference to the belt-tightening, sacrifices, and "difficult living conditions" associated with the regime's chosen course. The response, however, was that outside of the heavy industry sectors the economy is likely to become more decentralized. I found the following passage particularly noteworthy in this regard:
"Light-industry factories need to transform their equipment and production lines into labour- and electricity-saving ones and produce and supply more diversified and quality consumer goods with domestic raw and other materials, and provinces, cities and counties should develop the local economy in a characteristic way by relying on their own raw material resources."
Put differently: You are on your own. And as others such as Peter Ward at 38North have noted, de facto marketization is creeping into the state sector. Kim suggested as much:
"The Cabinet and other economic guidance organs should work out a realistic operational plan to carry out the national economic plan for this year and push forward the work for its implementation responsibly and persistently. Positive measures should be taken by the state to ensure that the socialist system of responsible business operation proves its worth in factories, enterprises and cooperative organizations."
Finally, it was only a matter of time before the regime sought to exploit Moon Jae In's deep commitment to engagement. Predictably, the magnanimity of seeking to improve relations was laced with barbs. Noting that both the 70th anniversary of the DPRK and the Winter Olympics fall in 2018, Kim issues a more-or-less open threat: "As long as this unstable situation, which is neither wartime nor peacetime, persists, the North and the South cannot ensure the success of the scheduled events." The price? Cease and desist military exercises with the United States.
Even if that were a good idea before, it now becomes untenable. But Kim does make other offers that the South should take up in my view. First, Kim purports to welcome "the ruling party and opposition parties, organizations and individual personages of all backgrounds, for dialogue, contact and travel." Why not? Of course, the speech goes on about solving problems "by ourselves," transparently seeking to weaken the alliance. But Washington and Seoul should be self-confident enough to permit opening the channel. Ditto with respect to a proposal to consult on the Winter Olympics. Is the South really better off not taking up the offer? If the North Koreans are going to disrupt the Olympics, they are going to disrupt the Olympics; it is not clear why extending an open hand to North Korean participation carries significant costs. If North Korea comes bearing nothing more than costly conditions for participating in an athletic event, that fact will be immediately obvious to all and easy to reject.
As always, there is little in the speech that was really comforting. Despite a strain of anxiety with respect to the economy, there is nothing that suggests much self-doubt or regret. The overtures to the South no doubt carry some risks, but those risks should not be exaggerated. Yet neither should we expect much. A peaceful Olympics with North Korean participation may appear to be a pretty low bar. In the current context, however, I would count it as a small win.
From the New Year's Speech
North Korean nuclear doctrine remains maddeningly difficult to fathom. This passage from the speech underlines how difficult it is to get at what the regime and its military is thinking about nuclear use. While the rest of the speech largely stuck to deterrent and defensive themes, these two sentences are a bundle of contradictions:
"As a responsible, peace-loving nuclear power, our country will neither have recourse to nuclear weapons unless hostile forces of aggression violate its sovereignty and interests nor threaten any other country or region by means of nuclear weapons. However, it will resolutely respond to acts of wrecking peace and security on the Korean peninsula."
This passage starts and concludes by saying that nuclear weapons would not be used unless sovereignty and interests are violated, or "peace and security" on the peninsula are "wrecked." That could be given a straightforward deterrent interpretation. But Kim then muddies the water by suggesting they could be used if other countries or regions—not even North Korea—were merely threatened, a rookie mistake that Donald Trump made as well in his "fire and fury" comment. To say that nuclear weapons will be used in response to threats is destabilizing unless those threats are clearly imminent. Two adversaries both arguing for the merits of pre-emption is the virtual definition of crisis instability.
Witness to Transformation Analysis of Previous North Korean New Year's Speeches
2017. The headlines on this speech were focused on the promise to "complete" the country's ICBM program; you can't say Kim Jong-un didn't tell us. The speech also contained an interesting reference to anti-Park developments in the South as well as a reiteration of a central theme of Kim III: that science and technology will allow North Korea to leapfrog its development.
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," such as 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 United States. 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—was deemed disappointing because of its "Masik pass" emphasis on pushing forward on all fronts. With respect to foreign policy, particular emphasis was placed on the precedent of the previous 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.