As New Year's editorials and speeches go, Kim Jong Un's 25-minute New Year's speech would appear to fall in the "mildly hopeful" category. The reason: that the purge of Jang Song Thaek has proven more unsettling than anticipated and that the regime is seeking to project an image of normalization.
Three substantive themes struck us as better than the alternatives: a somewhat greater emphasis on economic rather than security issues, including agriculture and construction; a possible reference to the need to pare heavy military expenditure; and an overture to the South.
Yet each of these also came with predictable poison pills. Suggestions of reform are oblique at best, with a continuing emphasis on "Masik pass" mobilizational campaigns, white-elephant projects and exhortations to "economize". "Normalization" also has a hard political edge. The speech is larded with references to "monolithic" political and ideological unity behind the leader, suggesting that the purge will be followed by a period of heightened political surveillance, selective purges and repression. The main thrust of the overture to the South is that "international cooperation"—read the Six Party Talks—are a treasonous diversion. The speech makes no mention of the country's nuclear program, but that too reflects the downside of normalization: that the regime has achieved nuclear status and has no intention of giving it up.
The speech began by tackling the purge head-on, and the paragraph is worth reproducing here in full:
"In the seething period of the effort for building a thriving country last year we took the resolute measure of removing the factionalists lurking in the Party. As our Party detected and purged the anti-Party, counterrevolutionary factionalists at an opportune time and with a correct decision, the Party and revolutionary ranks were further consolidated and our single-hearted unity was solidified to the maximum. Through this struggle our Party affirmed that as a party that serves the people, it will fully discharge the honourable mission it has assumed for the times and history and devote its all to the good of the people by enhancing its militant functions and role."
The main political message—as in the past two editorials—is the identification of the country, the Party and the leader, an emphasis on the bloodline, and the call for unwavering unity against ideological or factional deviation. Within both the party and the military, this means intensifying ideological work to stamp out "even the slightest phenomenon and element (sic) that infringe on the unity of the Party" and protecting against "any sort of alien ideology and decadent lifestyle which may undermine our system and thus resolutely smash the enemy's schemes for ideological and cultural infiltration."
Within the military, ideological and political objectives are given as much weight as military ones. As with the party, emphasis is placed on stepping up ideological and political work down to the company level to defend the "Kumsusan Palace of the Sun"—ie., the Kim family bloodline—and the Party Central Committee. As the DailyNK points out, references to the Leader and Party overshadow those exalting the military; Kim Jong Un used the term songun or "military first politics" on just three occasions, compared with seven in 2013; the "byungjin line"—the simultaneous pursuit of nuclear weapons and economic growth—was used only once.
The concomitant of "ideological work," however, is surveillance and repression; we will continue to report on the aftermath of the take-down of Jang Song Thaek (see our first "Aftermath Roundup" here), but the cleansing of the party is not yet finished.
The standard way of parsing the economic content of the speech is to look at the order in which issues are introduced. We are dubious whether this really matters, but agriculture, construction and science did precede the first mention of heavy industries. On the other hand, investment in expensive sports programs and recreation facilities—riding clubs, ski resorts, water parks—receives prominent mention in the speech, to us a variant of the "bread and circuses" approach to governing, but without the bread.
The speech makes reference to an "economization" campaign, which could reflect ongoing shortages or a push for greater socialist efficiency. The speech also makes a pointed reference to unifying the management of the economy under Party leadership, no doubt a swipe at Jang's control of foreign-exchange earning assets outside the central chain of command. It does not make explicit reference, however, to the "cabinet system" or delegating more authority to the state.
Military modernization came up in a passage that referred to producing "modern military hardware of our own style," including weapons that are light, unmanned, intelligent and of high precision." The surface reference is clearly to drones, but could this be a recognition of the drag that the heavy weapons sector places on the economy? We were also interested to see that references to scientific advance were not tethered to the nuclear and space program as they were in previous speeches, but this is probably pushing at the edges of wishful thinking.
Finally, the overture to the South is unmistakable; virtually the entire foreign policy section of the speech is on the need to improve North-South relations. However, the theme of this section of the speech is "By Our Nation Itself," a reference to the controversial first principle in the 1972 joint communiqué ("…reunification should be achieved independently, without reliance upon outside force or its interference…"), repeated—again with controversy—in the June 15 Joint Declaration of 2000 ("The South and the North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country.")
Opinion on the North's demarche divided in predictable ways. Hankyoreh compared the speech unfavorably to Park Geun Hee's New Year's Address, arguing that the new administration had fallen into the same hardline pattern as its successor. New Focus International reaches the conclusion that the speech is the first round in a psychological effort to stir up discontent with Park's approach to the North.
Interestingly, all appearances of the word "nuclear" appear in the context of nuclear war and threats against the DPRK; there is no mention of North Korea's nuclear program or ambitions. But unfortunately we are inclined to see that omission as another dimension of normalization: that North Korea is a de facto nuclear state and there is no interest in the Six Party Talks. Any North-South demarche will continue Pyongyang's policy of refusing to address the nuclear issue in any North-South forum.