Kim Jong Un’s New Year Speech: What it Really Means (Part 2 of 2)

North Korea's former poet laureate takes a look at Kim Jong Un's New Years Speech - it seems this year is all about strengthening legitimacy, not economic reform or bold foreign policy.
January 3rd, 2013
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North Korea’s vision for 2013: as seen through Kim Jong Un’s new year speech

Kim Jong Un’s new year speech contains two thematic halves. The first half summarizes the events and accomplishments of 2012 while the second half lays down objectives for the year ahead. The summary of 2012 boasts of the nation’s political stability and unity after Kim Jong-il’s death. It also pays special attention to the successful rocket launch. The most important part of a new year speech, however, is the second half, in which objectives are set for the coming year. Traditionally, this section is divided into five parts and this year’s speech is no exception.


1: Setting the national mood for the year

The North Korean political system, based as it is on an unchanging ideology (at least in theory), maintains internal solidarity and acquiescence by means of ‘national mood variations’ on an underlying theme. The setting of a new year’s national mood is usually connected to a national holiday. Through politicising holidays, citizens can be mobilised for propaganda activities and called to ideological evaluation sessions. The national holidays highlighted for 2013 in this new year speech is the ‘65th Anniversary of the Founding of the DPRK’ and the ’60th Anniversary of Victory in the Homeland Liberation War’. Obviously, this aids in legitimising the third generation of dictatorship. More significantly, it is a declaration that the military spirit of the Korean War has been set as this year’s national mood.


2: The economy

In the new year speech, Kim Jong Un specifies the ‘war slogan that must be borne by the Party and people’: “That spirit which allowed us to conquer space, may it lead to a watershed in our establishment of an economically strong nation!” This slogan does not suggest economic reforms. In fact, it is a dispassionate confirmation of the status quo and commitment to an autonomous economy.

Take the following line for example: “This year, all business activities must further strengthen the existing foundation of an autonomous people’s economy. We must vigorously increase production and improve the stability of people’s lives. The people must prepare their positions for this battle that lies ahead.” There is a phrase here that has greater implications for a continuance of the status quo than ‘autonomous economy’: Kim Jong Un urges for an improvement in ‘the stability of people’s lives’. ‘Stability’ is the objective that is stressed; there is no mention of ‘growth’. Kim Jong Un’s declaration of indifference towards economic reform is summed up when he says,“We will firmly persist in our style of socialist economics. By ensuring that the workers carry out their responsibilities as the protagonists of production, we will endlessly remould and perfect our economic framework.” These are uninspired words. Kim Jong Un’s vacuous non-statement reveals that economic policy is not a pressing concern for him at present.


3: The military

By pointing out that 2013 is the 50th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s proclamation that ‘One man’s valor conquers a hundred men’, we are reminded once again of a military discipline founded on the ‘Mt. Baekdu mindset’ of the Kim Il Sung revolutionary tradition. In addition, Kim Jong Un places special emphasis on the Korea People’s Domestic Army. This conveys his intention to strengthen domestic security.


4: Society

Kim Jong Un declares the building of a ‘Socialist-Civilization Strong Nation’. Kim Jong-un is saying that the Kim Jong Un administration is founding a new civilisation. In plain English, this means society will now conform to the new Kim.


5: A political vision?

The workers’ ideological views, potential for enterprise, and attitude to work must fundamentally be transformed!” is Kim’s way of asking for order to be imposed on the political climate. It is significant that Kim puts undue emphasis on the following words: “One’s loyalty and abilities must be evaluated by the Party and people.” This foreshadows more purges for a restructuring in the year ahead.


6: Inter-Korean and foreign policy

In terms of inter-Korean policy, the two national holidays mentioned previously refers to North Korea’s three conditions for inter-Korean relations: ‘Korean people first’, ‘Korean people focus’ and ‘Korean solidarity’. This is a direct response to South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye’s proposal of ‘a condition of trust’ for inter-Korean relations. Simply put, Kim Jong Un is saying that he declines her proposal, and that instead, the North Korean proposal of uriminzokkiri should be the condition of inter-Korean relations.

In terms of foreign policy, Kim Jong Un says that under the conditions of autonomy, peace and friendship North Korea will hold hands with anyone. This too is an uninspired and empty statement.


So what does it all mean?

Kim Jong Un’s ‘proposals’ betray a lack of confidence in his power

Kim Jong Il’s confidence in his power was expressed more in the realm of foreign policy than in his domestic policy. In terms of inter-Korean relations, he made calculated demands. In terms of foreign relations, he did not shy from making demands of the US and using nuclear arms as a lever for ‘co-operation’. In stark contrast to his father’s style, Kim Jong Un’s exploitation of his successful rocket launch has been limited to a domestic audience. For the international community, he used it cautiously, and only for symbolic effect.

A blank space in policy equals a blank space in power: whereas Kim Jong Un’s domestic policy is precisely worded, nothing concrete or tangible is said in terms of foreign policy. This confirms that there is not yet enough unity in the Kim Jong Un administration to continue with previous foreign policies.


There is no economic reform in sight for 2013

When the moranbong band performs, the outside world looks at the music and lights and cautiously interprets it as a signal of reform. Such shows are nothing more than symptoms of a new ‘socialist civilisation’ in Kim Jong Un style, as mentioned earlier in the new year speech. These shows have nothing to do with an actual plan for reform. If Kim Jong Un truly intended to pursue the path of reform, he would have pledged ties with China. Yet there was no mention of this. In fact, he stresses several times the pursuit of an autonomous economy. In North Korean-speak, this means that Kim Jong Un has not given much thought to economic growth. Stability of power is the top priority.


2013 is a transitional year for Kim Jong Un

At the beginning of the new year speech, Kim Jong Un differentiates between officials (Dear comrades!) soldiers and citizens (Valiant people’s soldiers and beloved people of the nation!) and North Koreans abroad (longed-for brothers of our nation!) As mentioned in Part 1, no one but Kim Jong Il was ‘dear’ until this speech, where Kim Jong Un now describes the political elite as ‘dear’ to him. However, a firm expression of his own authority is included in the speech: the officials must be evaluated for their competence. In addition, the role of the internal security forces is stressed, and there is no change to be seen in terms of economic reform or foreign policy. All of this points to a domestic focus for the year.

Finally, with the national holidays of the ‘65th Anniversary of the Founding of the DPRK’ and the ’60th Anniversary of Victory in the Homeland Liberation War’ setting a military tone for the year, 2013 will see more bloody purges.

Edited and translated by Shirley Lee

Picture by KCNA

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About the Author

Jang Jin-sung

Jang Jin-sung is North Korea’s former poet laureate under Kim Jong Il, and is now Editor-in-chief of New Focus International. 

Join the discussion

  • Frequent visitor

    This is a lot of reading between the lines from someone who has obviously not visited the DPRK recently. The people themselves have changed in the way they speak and the hopes they have and this is a far greater indicator of what they expect than someone’s nitpicking of a speech. Time will tell. Only time.

    • NewFocusINTL

      I don’t know if you understand that this speech analysis is about the regime’s stated POLICY for the year, not about the people! Jang, of all people, agrees with you entirely in terms of the fact that ‘the people themselves have changed’. For example, see Jang’s article here: newfocusintl.com/kim-jong-un-jokes/

      • NewFocusINTL

        Want to add, too many people sadly conflate the regime and people as if they are one. The North Korean people are very forward looking and nothing like the propaganda suggests. Whereas the regime…The fact that Jang says the regime is not at present interested in reform does not mean at all he is saying that the people feel the same.

    • Guest

      Want to add, that is the usual mistake people make – to conflate the regime and people as if they are one. The North Korean people are very forward looking and nothing like the propaganda suggests. Whereas the regime…

  • STEPHANINO BERTIRONI

    Jang Jin-Sung provides a very one-sided analysis and at that a very biased one. That is his right! One has to understand that DPRK politics operate very differently than anything else that we are used to. Kim Jong Un mentioned confrontation that leads to wars. Jang fails to note that. Rather than render a judgement today, I would like to revisit both Kim’s speech and Jang’s analysis on December 31, 2013. Only the future will tell !!!

    • NewFocusINTL

      Thanks for your comment! With regard to ‘confrontation that leads to wars’, you’re right, Jang doesn’t spell it out. But he does say that in terms of foreign policy, nothing Kim said is new.

      With regard to ‘very biased’, I appreciate what you’re saying entirely, but want to point out – just for the record – that omitting the negatives is also ‘very biased’. As you pointed out, he’s using his vast knowledge of the DPRK speech-writing tradition to point out that we must interpret Kim’s speech in the DPRK traditional context.

      Crucially, he points out that lack of ‘linguistic innovation’ in the speech items (such as with regard to economy and foreign policy) means that no thought has been given to revising these existing policies.

      • STEPHANINO BERTIRONI

        Thank you for the comments. I totally agree with them. I like many don’t have confidence in what Kim Jong Un says, but I like to give him the benefit of doubt and only the future can tell.

        DPRK needs food aid, and South Korea, ROK, can provide that along with economic assistance. So I also don’t take what Kim Jong Un says for cash. However, one thing I can assure everyone here is that unification WILL NOT HAPPEN under North Korean, DPRK, terms.