The New Year Address can be seen as one of the DPRK’s oldest traditions – it was first delivered by Kim Il Sung in 1946, and since then, at the beginning of every year, North Koreans have been treated to a lengthy speech delivered by their leader.
For a few years under Kim Jong Il the speech was presented as a ‘joint editorial’ of major newspapers, but this hardly changed its nature: the New Year Address is a report of how North Korea’s leaders see the country’s situation, and also offers hints as to the goals they hope to achieve the next year.
So, it is little wonder that North Korean watchers worldwide tend to be busy on January 1 – they see the Address as the most authoritative indicator of the leader’s plans and intention.
This year’s Address was presented in an unusual style, very different to what we have traditionally seen. The North Korean leader sat in a large comfortable chair, in a large room, complete with two very large pictures of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, and a high bookshelf full of books.
Generally, the environment was reminiscent of how the traditional offices of high-level Western politicians and executives appear.
It was also unusual that the TV showed Kim Jong Un arriving at the venue, accompanied by a group of officials among whom one could easily recognize his sister, Kim Yo Jong, who has recently emerged as something of a “second in command” in the North Korean hierarchy.
This new and homely environment, arguably, is meant to make the Supreme Leader look less remote, more human.
However, in spite of the new environment, the contents of the address came as little surprise to North Korea watchers. There were important hints and statements, but these were quite predictable, and did not deviate much from the established and well-known positions.
This year’s Address was presented in an unusual style
Foreign audiences are, predictably, more interested in those parts of the 2019 Address which dealt with foreign policy and, in particular, North Korea’s relations with the U.S. One should keep in mind, though, that in the 30 minute speech these parts were pushed towards the end.
BREAKING DOWN THE SPEECH
To start with, Kim Jong Un expressed his desire to talk with the U.S. (including its President) and make a deal with the U.S. to bury the ugly past and advance towards the better future.
However, pushing these predictable niceties aside, the 2019 Address contained four important messages for the U.S.:
First, Kim Jong Un confirmed that (for the time being, at least), North Korea intends to maintain the moratorium on the nuclear and missile tests which was introduced early last year. He even said that North Korea would not “produce, test, use and proliferate” nuclear weapons.
This is a somewhat bigger commitment than before, since it contains the new claim that production has been stopped as well (an unverifiable statement, obviously, and hence of little practical value).
Second, while the word “denuclearization” was used once in the Address, one should read its context carefully: once again, Kim Jong Un was not talking about the “denuclearization of North Korea,” but rather about the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
This wording has been used by North Korean diplomats since the early 1990s, and it has always implied the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea and, perhaps, even adjacent territories (like Okinawa) as a necessary component.
In other words, no matter what the optimists are going to tell you, Kim Jong Un did not confirm or express any willingness to surrender nuclear weapons unilaterally. He said he wants compromise, but he did not say that he is willing to denuclearize unilaterally.
Third, the 2019 New Year Address contains a clear warning for Washington. It was said that while the North Koreans are striving for compromise and peaceful cooperation now, they will have no choice but to reconsider this policy and find an unspecified “new way” if the U.S. stubbornly refuses to make necessary concessions and continues the policy of “sanctions and pressure against [our] republic.”
These nebulous threats can be seen in many ways, but to this author the easiest reading is to see them as a warning that unwillingness to compromise will trigger the revival of the allegedly-frozen North Korean nuclear program.
Fourth, while the Address does not specify which concessions are expected, it seems that the UN-approved sanctions are seen as a major problem. Pyongyang expect the U.S. to relieve sanctions to allow the movement towards a “peace regime” to continue.
REACHING OUT TO SEOUL
When it comes to the relations with the South, Kim Jong Un used a lot of superlatives. He described recent agreements as a “de-facto non-aggression treaty” and the ongoing “amazing changes” as a “great transformation.”
While in regard to the U.S. the warnings and even veiled threats were added to a generally positive and pro-negotiation message, the attitude to the South in the Address was unconditionally optimistic.
This approach partially reflects reality – compared with Washington, Seoul is far, far more willing to make deals and give concessions to Pyongyang – but is also partially aimed at broadening a rift between South Korea and the U.S.
Kim Jong Un also expressed his willingness to restart two major North-South cooperation projects – the Kaesong Industrial Zone and Kumgang tourist zone.
Both economic projects had been discontinued by the conservative administrations in Seoul, and, strictly speaking, it is impossible to re-start both projects now, since their revival will constitute a violation of the UN-endorsed sanctions regime.
However, Kim Jong Un said that Southern compatriots should work together with their Northern brethren, in spite of “sanctions and pressure brought about by the outside forces.”
This was clearly a signal that the South Koreans should ignore the U.S. and, broader speaking, the international community, and engage in economic cooperation with North Korea.
As expected, being a Korean politician, Kim Jong Un expressed a commitment to unification which, he stressed, should be achieved without the interference of outside forces.
Overall, the 2019 New Year Address contained few surprises
Apart from the U.S. and South Korea, China also received an indirect reference in the New Year Address.
Kim Jong Un said that “neighboring countries” (obviously China but also, perhaps, Russia) should support the efforts of North Korea aimed at the improvement of the situation in the Korean peninsula, and should stand up against assorted provocations and “actions which undermine peace.”
One should not forget that two thirds of the 2019 Address was about the economy. The expected talk of a “socialist system,” remarkably, was combined with references to the need to improve the pricing and financial system, to develop the structure of state enterprise.
These remarks can be interpreted as an expression of intent to continue the low-key, but radical, economic reforms which have been conducted by Kim Jong Un and his people since his ascent to power. It is also noteworthy that the New Year Address paid much attention to infrastructure (electricity production and transportation).
Overall, the 2019 New Year Address contained few surprises: it did not contain open bellicose threats or excessive saber-rattling, but it also did not contain any kind of bold proposals.
It seems that 2019 will be very similar to 2018 – or, at least, this is what North Korean leadership hopes for.
Last year was a year of great diplomatic victories for Pyongyang. Now they merely want to win time, and the speech reflected this.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1296 words of this article.