Much ado about style over substance: Kim Jong Un’s New Year

Continuing the theme of channeling his grandfather’s charisma by reversing his father’s aloofness, the young DPRK leader Kim Jong Un read his first major policy speech on New Year’s day. During his 19-year reign, “dear leader” Kim Jong Il (Jong Un’s father) substituted the traditional New Year’s pronouncements of “great leader” Kim Il Sung (Jong Un’s grandfather) with a “joint New Year’s editorial” published by the official newspapers of the Korean Worker’s Party, the Korean People’s Army and the Party’s youth wing.

Kim Jong Un delivers 2013 New Year message (Photo by KCNA)

The young Kim Jong Un appeared before television cameras to read the lengthy speech, which will be the subject of intensive study within North Korea. But as can be seen by a sampling of “expert” opinions, this annual summary of DPRK policies is also carefully dissected by DPRK-watchers the world over.

The full text of the speech (courtesy the Korean Central News Agency KCNA) can be read at the following link: New Year Address Made by Kim Jong Un.

To see the young leader reading the text (with the voice of an interpreter in English) please watch the video at the bottom of this article.

Here follow some early commentaries about the significance of this speech by a number of (mostly American) experts as assembled by Chris Nelson taken from the 2 January 2013 Nelson Report: 


Consensus that the “news” remains the fact that Kim personally delivered the country’s first New Year’s Day speech in 19 years,and on TV, allowing his subjects and the world to both see and hear him in action…something his late Father never, and his late Grand Pa rarely favored us with.

Western headlines from his televised address note his call to “remove confrontation” between North and South Korea and to reunify the two countries”…and his immediate use of the implied threat, noting the records of inter-Korean relations show that confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war.”

Stephan Haggard adds:

“To translate into English, you just hit the English button in the upper right corner. One thing I want to check: the speech is provided in whole, but also appears to be broken up into parts on the economy, culture, etc. I read the whole speech closely, but need to check whether the language of the parts are the same or include elaborations.”

A private expert on N. Asia who needs protection for various reasons summed up what, with a couple of exceptions, seems the unanimous view:

“Well anyone who reads this as a positive sign is consuming some serious psychotropic substances. The entire statement is framed in the context of the primacy of the military in the North Korean system. The discussion of the economy is classic command economy trope, complete with calls for heroic labor and emulation campaigns, without even the slightest hint of market-style reforms — it reminds me of Andropov with calls for ‘rectitude’.

It is heavy industry and mining first — to generate revenues with the Chinese I would guess — and a nod to consumer goods but importantly no indication of allowing more freedom for farmers. The rocket/satellite launch is now the paradigm for the latest version of juche — like the old one, it omits the helping hand of foreigners such as Iran. The military still has primacy as an institution — there is no mention that I found of the Korean Workers Party.

And the section on reunification and north-south relations is a classic attempt to portray themselves to folks in the South as reasonable, provided that the South accepts the two agreements signed with DJ and Roh, exactly the same terms they set out for LMB when he came to office.”

The IISS’s Mark Fitzpatrick checks in from London with a nuanced disagreement on the military primacy point:

“I was struck by the repeated references to ‘service personnel’ faithfully supporting the party. From the beginning line, the address was directed foremost toward the Korean People’s Army. All the tributes to ‘service personnel’ were couched in terms of their following the leadership of the Party. This theme of military subordination to the party is in keeping with the balancing of power that has been underway the past couple of years, reinforced by the purge last year of four leading generals. The lines in the speech about inter-Korean relations and the absence of invective toward Seoul are important signals, but the domestic political message is the key take-away as I see it.”

A USG expert adds to the military purge point:

“Important to note Kim Jong-Un’s initial senior personnel decisions: removing some of the hard-line KPA generals (Ri Yong-ho, Kim Yong Ch’un); elevating Chang Song-t’aek, appointing KWP official Ch’oe Ryong-hae as the KPA Director of the General Political Department, etc. These and other appointments were positive and indicative of KJU’s intent on taking control — especially of the military, where there’s apparent unhappiness ( push back) with some of these decisions.”

Dave Maxwell, Georgetown:

“He speaks well with apparent confidence. For those who think Military First Politics are over we should keep in mind his very first remarks about the People’s Army and addressing Kim Il-sung as President and Kim Jong-ill as General. Again, I would not get our hopes up too much. I seriously doubt MIlitary First politics is dead.

I am amazed how much the New Year speech’s words have such an effect and have drowned out the actions of December 12th. This is another indication to me that ‘Image First Politics’ is the priority for Kim Jong-un. Also I think that Kim Jong-un and the regime understand their target audiences and give them exactly what they want to hear and the reporting on his New Year’s day words would seem to indicate that.”

Stephan Haggard, UCSD, focusing on the nuclear issues:

Marc [Noland] and I got calls from CNN asking about the New Year’s speech and its promise to overhaul the economy and reach out to the South. I certainly didn’t see it; my quick analysis is here: The New Year’s Speech: Show Me the Money!

The economic stuff is disappointing, even extremely so; focus on science and technology, leap-frogging, heavy industry. The North-South appeals talk about implementing the two summit documents, which were ‘high engagement.’ The North Koreans now make no reference to the Basic Agreement, I suspect in part because of its close linkage to the related North-South de-nuclearization agreement. In fact, there is no mention of nuclear weapons at all in the speech. At least they are not blandishing them; that might be good but I wouldn’t over-read it.

The one sign of hope is in the last paragraph and it concerns a mention of reciprocity: ‘if states recognize our sovereignty, we are willing to deal with them.’ The perennial question is what might be on the table.

Essentially, ‘implementing the summit documents’ is equivalent to ‘please resume aid.’ The 2000 document is sort of a framework, and is simple and well-crafted, even if parts are controversial; I can go into detail if you want. But the 2007 Roh summit document was a pastiche of aid projects and commitments to the North with precious little offered in return. I have gone the way of all professional North Korea watchers; more and more cynical over time.

Gordon Flake, Mansfield Foundation:

As for the ‘outreach’ to the South… usual the most important preconditions are left unsaid…..’ignore Cheonan, ignore Yeonpyeong, ignore missile and nuke tests…..etc’.”

Bob Manning, Atlantic Council, offers a great suggestion:

On N-S, they left it deliberately vague -“respecting and thoroughly implementing the north-south joint declarations…” This does not exclude the one really important one, the 1991 Basic Agreement, which is an umbrella framework covering everything from nukes and conventional arms to reunification. There is still no indication they are willing to put nukes on the table in a serious way.

Yet the New Year’s salvo puts Ms. Park on the hook to explore what the North really means. Perhaps include expanding Kaesong in the talks. It will inevitably lead to N-S interchanges in which the North tries to blame the South for the breakdown. Beware of Lucy and the football syndrome – that’s where the smart money will go. A smart ROK response would be to call for exploratory talks, ask for more divided family exchanges, hotlines, incident at sea agreements, offer ‘people-to-people’ cultural exchanges, offer to train NK lawyers, MBAs, accountants agronomists, etc.

Offer to teach them baseball, it’s BIG all over NE Asia…Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan and even the Chinese are getting into it! Think ping-pong diplomacy updated for ESPN…”

Bruce Klingner, Heritage Foundation:

Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s message was different in format but not in content. By delivering a speech rather than written editorial, Jong-un is again emulating his grandfather Kim Il-sung rather than his father Kim Jong-il. Jong-un has shown himself to be far more adept at public diplomacy than the reclusive Kim Jong-il. This resonates well with the North Korean public who still revere the gregarious Kim Il-sung.

North Korea’s New Years Day messages tend to be overanalyzed by experts hungry for signs of change. The 2009 joint editorial contained few criticisms of the United States, leading some to believe Pyongyang would be receptive to the new Obama Administration’s offer of dialogue. The reality was far different, however, with North Korea conducting nuclear and missile tests and threatening war. In 2010, Pyongyang’s criticism of South Korea was more muted, leading to expectations of a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations. But North Korea twice attacked the South that year, sinking a naval vessel and shelling a civilian island.

This year’s message was striking for its strong sense of policy continuity rather than any hints of change. The text was bereft of any suggestions of the economic reform that pundits had predicted would be announced at last September’s Supreme People’s Assembly. Instead, the speech repeated entreaties to workers to exceed their production quotas to attain a “socialist paradise.” References to socialism, songun (military first policy), and chuche (self-reliance) predominated. There were even fewer references to light industry to improve people’s conditions than were included in the last two New Year’s Day joint editorials (21 mentions in 2011, 5 in 2012, and 2 in 2013).

Although far more dynamic than his father, Kim Jong-un’s impact on the outside world is undermined by North Korea’s continued provocations and bombastic rhetoric. Had Jong-un adopted a softer public message, such as Mikhail Gorbachev did in the Soviet Union, he could have gained more traction for gaining concessions at resumed negotiations.

Kim Jong-un’s ascension to power last year triggered hopes that the western-educated ruler might pursue a more moderate foreign policy. But during his reign, North Korea twice violated UN resolutions with rocket launches, called for the assassination of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, and threatened South Korean conservative media.

Therefore, Jong-un’s New Year’s message of moderation must be treated skeptically. North Korea must match any overtures with a tangible decrease in its belligerent behavior.


One Response to “Much ado about style over substance: Kim Jong Un’s New Year”

  1. Dwain Epps Says:

    Many thanks for this posting that offers at least some clarity in the haze of (minimalist) media reporting, and at the same time reminds us of the continuing and perhaps increasing complexities in North-South relations that lie ahead.

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