Since the rise of Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang watchers have become accustomed to hearing the head of the North Korean state delivering a New Year’s address each January 1.
Such a tradition exists in many nations. For example, in the late 1930s, each New Year’s Day Korean newspapers published portraits of the Imperial couple of Japan and the speech of the Governor-General Minami Jiro, which was usually dedicated to the greatness of “His Imperial Majesty the Generalissimo” and his army.
North Korea likely borrowed the New Year’s speech tradition, like most of its form of government, from the Soviet Union – but with a twist. In the USSR, Stalin was not the one delivering the speech. Instead, it was Mikhail Kalinin, the formal head of state.
Not so in North Korea, where the New Year’s address has never been delivered by the Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly but by the Dear Leader himself. As such, it is has become one of the supreme leader’s most important speeches and one of the primary ways in which he charts out a trajectory for the North Korean state.
North Korea likely borrowed the New Year’s speech tradition from the Soviet Union – but with a twist
THE LEADERS AND THEIR SPEECHES
The first New Year after the Empire of Japan’s surrender and the division of the Korean Peninsula was 1946. By that time, the North’s proto-parliament – the Provisional People’s Assembly for Northern Korea – had not yet formed.
However, a Party organization did exist – the North Korean Committee of the Communist Party of Korea. Its chief was Kim Il Sung, who had been appointed to the position in December 1945. Thus he was the one to make the speech, and a new tradition was born.
After that year, Kim Il Sung would continue to deliver the New Year’s speech as the ruler of North Korea, not the head of a powerless parliament.
Kim Il Sung continued to deliver New Year speeches until his death in 1994. Normally, he gave a single speech, although separate speeches dedicated to the Chinese People’s Volunteers were also published several times during the Korean War. The Rodong Sinmun, the main state newspaper, started publishing the New Year’s speeches in 1946, and other major news outlets would reprint the speeches as well.
North Korea’s modern format for publishing New Year’s addresses was established after Kim Il Sung’s pivotal speech on May 25, 1967, which laid the framework for the country’s unique form of totalitarianism. Since 1968, the New Year’s speech has been published on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun alongside Kim’s standard portrait and a ribbon-style inscription wishing the people a happy New Year.
Kim Il Sung died in 1994, and his son Kim Jong Il inherited the throne. From what we know of the younger Kim, the man hated appearing in public. Thus during his time in power, he never made a single New Year’s address.
Instead, North Korea published a joint address in three newspapers: the Party’s mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun, the official army newspaper Choson Inmingun, and the organ of the Youth League Chongnyon Chonwi. The newspaper’s formed quite an interesting triad. From what I know, North Korean archives have a special project dedicated to scanning all these newspapers, which are probably considered the most important in the country, although objectively speaking, Chongnyon Chonwi is not nearly as significant as the other two publications.
This new tradition continued until 2012, slightly outliving the Great Marshal. Since Kim Jong Il died on December 17, 2011, it would have been odd – and somewhat disrespectful – for Kim Jong Un to make a speech less than a month after his father’s death.
Kim Jong Un’s first New Year speech was delivered on January 1, 2013. The Rodong Sinmun published the text in the old Kim Il Sung-style format, albeit with the leader’s portrait replaced by a photo of Kim Jong Un reading the speech.
Normally, Kim has been surrounded by Workers’ Party flags in these photos, and a comparison of the images from each successive year shows him becoming more and more obese.
During his time in power, Kim Jong Il never made a single New Year’s address
HOW TO ANALYZE THE SPEECH
The New Year’s speech is extremely important in the DPRK, as is well recognized in South Korea – to those who can read Korean, I recommend the Research Center for North Korea’s book “Analysis of the North Korea New Year’s Speeches” (“북한 신년사 분석”).
In the unofficial hierarchy of the Leader’s speeches, the New Year’s address is second only to his speeches at major Pary events. Major news outlets in the country repeatedly quote the speech after it is given, and the speech’s major points are considered policy directions for the following year.
Since all but the smallest North Korean texts must cite the Leader’s statements, it should come as no surprise that North Koreans mine the New Year’s speech for quotations. A writer discussing the economy, for instance, would include a quotation where the Leader says the national economy is to be developed, and so on.
One should focus not on the general message but rather on small oddities within the speech
The content of the speeches helps a lot in this regard, since it is usually quite general – the Leaders are to be venerated, the economy developed, the army strengthened. To read the speech properly and understand its meaning, however, one should develop the analytical skills of North Korean bureaucrats and focus not on the general message but rather on small oddities within the speech.
For example, in his 1984 New Year’s speech, Kim Il Sung did not mention the exact percentage by which the economy had grown while calling for decisive economic improvement. The statement was interpreted – correctly – as one of the first signs of economic decline in the country.
On the other side, in 2015, Kim Jong Un said that the Cabinet of Ministers was to direct the economy, giving the green light to the Cabinet to continue pursuing less centralized policies.
More importantly, in his 1949 speech, Kim Il Sung angrily denounced “traitors in the south Korean puppet government” who opposed the American withdrawal from South Korea, stating that it would lead to North Korean invasion. As we know, this is exactly what happened. Had leaders paid more attention to the speech, perhaps the tragedy of the Korean War could have been avoided.
Normally, the speeches have included numerous remarks in support of the country’s cult of personality. Too little space dedicated to such remarks indicates liberalization, too much (above two-thirds) portends tightening of political control.
In terms of the economy, it’s typically a good sign if the Leader mentions at least once terms like “socialist system of responsibility of the enterprises” and “vegetable garden responsibility system.” These are codenames for decentralization of enterprises and agriculture, and use of the codenames suggest the Leader’s blessing.
Many mentions indicate that the reforms will be promoted and possibly expanded. A lack of such mentions may mean that the fate of the reforms is uncertain.
Almost all North Korean decision-makers will be listening to Kim Jong Un’s speech on January 1
Expect Kim Jong Un to proudly announce successes in rocket and nuclear development. This will be aimed both at foreign and internal audiences.
There will also be bits about foreign policy, but these are arguably less important. They may reflect Kim Jong Un’s true intentions, but North Korean foreign policy may change directions several times during the coming year. The trend outlined by the Leader is unlikely to remain in place.
In any case, almost all North Korean decision-makers will be listening to Kim Jong Un’s speech on January 1 and drawing conclusions from it. It would be wise for us to do the same.
Featured Photo: KCNA
Edited by Bryan Betts
Since the rise of Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang watchers have become accustomed to hearing the head of the North Korean state delivering a New Year's address each January 1.Such a tradition exists in many nations. For example, in the late 1930s, each New Year's Day Korean newspapers published portraits of the Imperial couple of Japan and the speech of the Governor-General Minami Jiro, which was
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.