The New Year’s Speech 2016



In October, we paid particular attention to Kim Jong Un’s speech celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Korean Workers Party. The speech appeared to contain some novel ideological innovations, including hints about accountability of the party to the people—implying a more developmental approach--and an appeal to youth.

The longish preamble of the 2016 New Year’s speech leads with economic accomplishments—power stations and Mirae Scientists Street—and does in fact devote a paragraph to youth, which I expect to be a strong theme of the regime moving forward. But the pivot to the main message leads with what will be the most significant event of 2016: the Seventh KWP Congress announced in October (Rudiger Frank provides useful background at 38 North). Although two Party Conferences—a more ad hoc yet nonetheless significant gathering--were convened during the succession, the last KWP Congress was held in 1980. Nothing could be a clearer indicator of the sustained deinstitutionalization of a political system that has become more and more personalist over time.

What will the Party Congress—and perhaps a revived party--do? If the order of the speech provides any indication, the message is clearly “economics first”; as Cha Du-hyeogn points out in analysis at NKNews, the word “Songun” appears only twice in the speech “and should no longer be read as the supreme status of military officials in North Korean society, but just the political word that unites today’s North Korean society.” Reference to the Congress is immediately followed by economic priorities. It is a fool’s errand to try to interpret what is intended with respect to economic policy because when everything is prioritized, nothing is prioritized. If order matters, heavy industry leads. But several passing references point to the “reform by stealth” direction. Among them: a reference to the importance of increasing “the number of world-famous products and commodities with a competitive edge” and to the Cabinet’s responsibility to improve guidance and planning.

Yet should too much be made of this? As usual, the economic components of the speech rely more on exhortation than any clear policy message, confusing results with the means of achieving them:

“[Planners] should accurately identify the main link in the whole chain of economic development and concentrate efforts on it while revitalizing the overall economy, especially when the conditions are not favourable and many difficulties arise. They should be proactive in organizing and launching the work of establishing on a full scale our style of economic management method which embodies the Juche idea, thus giving full play to its advantages and vitality.”

And later in the speech—although without direct reference to Juche—Kim Jong Un derides “worship of big countries and dependence on foreign forces [as] the road to national ruin,” arguing that “self-development alone is the road to sustaining the dignity of our country and our nation and to paving a broad avenue for the revolution and construction.”

Only after the economics section is there reference to political and military tasks, and in these sections are to be found some of the more interesting features of the speech. As always, there is an appeal to ideological purity. Yet of particular note is not only the return to the theme of accountability visible in the 70th anniversary speech but an open reference to bureaucratism and even corruption:

“Party organizations and state organs should give absolute priority to the demands and interests of the people by thoroughly applying the politics of prioritizing, respecting and loving them, and take responsible care of their political integrity and material and cultural life to the end. Party organizations should take hold of public sentiments, rally the broad sections of the masses closely around the Party, and launch an intensive struggle among officials against all practices of abuse of power, bureaucratism and corruption that gnaw at and undermine our single-hearted unity.”

Yet lest there be any mistake about the concept of accountability at work, it is laid to rest in an interesting paragraph on the importance of internal security. Not surprisingly reference to internal security has appeared much more frequently in the annual editorials/speeches since the ascent of Kim Jong Un. Rather than the usual appeals to guard the leadership, in this speech the reference is made to plots: “officers and men of the Korean People's Internal Security Forces should smash in embryo the manoeuvrings of the class enemy and hostile elements to harm the leadership of the revolution, our socialist system and our people's lives and property.” We should never think that reform by stealth will be accompanied by political relaxation; to the contrary, increased marketization may generate sterner surveillance.

As always, the speech closes with the foreign policy and security objectives, with an emphasis on the South. Last year, Kim Jong Un expressed a willingness—probably a rhetorical flourish--to actually meet with President Park Geun-hye. This year, the speech is less bold, with few departures that we can see: unification is to be achieved by North and South alone; the US is obstructionist, as evidenced by its war games and failure to take the peace regime proposals seriously; and North and South should return to the spirit of engagement contained in the June 15 Joint Declaration and October 4 Declaration and forego any “confrontation of systems.” The August 25 Agreement is mentioned in passing. But the death of Kim Yang Gon—the pivotal figure throughout the transition in managing North-South relations—is likely to pose challenges given the personalist nature of the system and the importance of loyalty and trust to the conduct of diplomacy (John Grisafi at NKNews provides an excellent summary).

The only other military and foreign policy note of interest was an omission: that Kim Jong Un did not specifically mention either the country’s nuclear or missile program, leaving it to a more elusive note of developing “more diverse means of military strike of our own style.” But whether this reflects a quiet new normal as a nuclear power or Chinese efforts to tone down the nuclear rhetoric is impossible to say.

In conducting these informal analyses, we always close with the caveat that North Korean statements are difficult to read because of the low signal to noise ratio. This is particularly true in the economic sphere where the effort to prioritize everything and the reliance on exhortation has long been the hallmark of the socialist system’s underlying weakness.

Yet there is some evidence for the interpretation offered at the time of the 70th anniversary speech: that they byungjin line is seen by the leadership to be working. North Korea is effectively a nuclear power—and does not need to flaunt it—and can now turn to economic tasks. To date, this has been by stealth. But the 7th Party Congress might well confirm it in a more open fashion. Unlike the 2012 editorial, this is not the speech of a regime that feels itself under duress.

 Witness to Transformation Analyses of Past New Year’s Editorials and Speeches

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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