Hello NK News readers, and Happy New Year! Welcome to Ask a North Korean, the feature where you can ask our North Korean writers your questions about life on the ground in the DPRK.
Today, Tae-il Shim and In-hua Kim discuss how North Koreans view their leader’s annual New Year’s Address.
The speech is typically a chance for the North Korean leader to outline his vision for the country in the coming year.
This year, DPRK leader Kim Jong Un didn’t give a traditional speech; instead, his remarks to his fellow Workers’ Party members at a party plenary meeting were published in the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Kim’s words have already made waves around the world: he declared that North Koreans will need to “tighten our belts” in the coming months, and said that “the world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future.”
But that’s outside the DPRK. Here, Tae-il and In-hua will tell us how people feel about the North Korean leader’s New Year’s remarks inside the country.
Got a question for Tae-il or In-hua? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Kim Il Sung always delivered a New Year’s speech until the year he died in 1994. The only year that he missed it was sometime in 1970, if I remember it correctly, when he was in deep sorrow with his fellow anti-Japanese activist Kim Il, who was going to Germany to cure a fatal disease he had contracted.
Unlike Kim Jong Il, who never gave a speech throughout his 17 years in power, Kim Jong Un has been making a New Year’s speech every year.
During Kim Il Sung’s time, people heeded the speech. Granted, it was still a time of unenlightened society and ignorance where we lived like frogs in a well, closed off from the outside world.
But at least under Kim Il Sung, farming produced a decent yield, and no one was said to have died of starvation.
I vividly remember when Kim Il Sung announced 10-point prospective targets at the Sixth Congress of the Workers’ Party, including 15 million tons of grain production, 3.5 million tons of marine products, five millions ton of steel, and seven million tons of cement.
Back then, because the targets were nearly met, people paid attention to the New Year’s speech and were motivated by it.
Such interest waned and disappeared during Kim Jong Il’s time. With each passing year, people realized that the authorities’ propaganda carried no truth.
For example, the Party promised a better life after the Arduous March. But what met the people in the following year was more poverty.
“I recited Kim Jong Un’s speech with perfection in the main auditorium, where 3,000 inmates were present”
The slogans were deceitful and had no effect on us, and then they promoted a new one: Pain for our generation, prosperity for the future generations.
After yelling that slogan for a few years, the government shifted gears and blamed high defense costs — necessary for defending the divided nation against the U.S., Japan, and South Korea — as the cause of keeping the people’s belts tight.
Some people indeed remain interested in the speeches, which laid out defense expenditures, foreign policy, and economic projects.
The authorities’ propaganda said that a 1% diversion of the defense budget, or selling a few nuclear missiles to anti-U.S. states like Iran and Syria, or to Taiwan, would be enough to enrich people’s lives. (Editor’s note: Taiwan is listed because before the author defected in late 2018, North Korea was upset with China for agreeing to comply with UN sanctions.)
A recitation contest, which goes from mid-January through the entire month of February, is held by unit. The goal is to recite by heart the over-30-minute speech, with not one syllable missing.
Convicts and prisoners are no exception.
Rather, “those punks with the capitalist yellow breeze in their bone marrow” must memorize it without sleeping at night, so as not to sin again, because their crime was committed from having not been thoroughly armed with the Party and the Leader’s ideology.
I won first place in this contest, in 2015 and 2016, during my 10-year-long prison term.
I recited Kim Jong Un’s speech with perfection in the main auditorium, where 3,000 inmates were present.
As my fellow prisoners at the time — some of whom are now in South Korea — can testify, I was the envy of everyone. It felt like I possessed the entire world. I was on cloud nine.
I experienced the exhilaration and pride I had never felt in my 50-year-long lifetime.
The joy, however, did not come from having memorized the long speech perfectly, but was from the fact that I had earned 10 kilograms of corn powder, which could keep me alive. Back then, it was far more precious than a nugget of gold.
The second-place winner received five kilograms, and three kilograms of corn powder were given to third place.
“No North Korean is looking forward to the New Year’s speech”
It is another question whether we indeed received the full portion of the prize corn powder.
The prison guard was ridiculing the prisoners for being desperate for corn powder. It was pig’s feed to them.
He passed it to the head of the prisoners, and it was up to him to decide to give half, or even less, to the prize winner.
He could still report to the higher-up that he had provided it fully, when he in fact gave only one kilogram out of the 10.
Even so, I was confined in a space where a spoonful of that powder can determine one’s survival. The five-to-six kilograms of corn powder I had received were still a treasure more precious than anything else I could possibly earn in my life.
It was the result of having studied for three sleepless nights, while during the day the grueling forced labor carried on as usual.
I would untie the small sack and pour the corn powder into a bowl, only to pour it back into the sack.
Seeing other inmates dying off from hunger day after day, I couldn’t just gulp it up to fill my stomach. I wanted to spare it as long as I could, assuring myself that I have food to live on, and hence I could get out alive.
Though the treatment and conditions of these places, where prisoners are sent to be “reformed,” may vary depending on the location and the gender of the person, the accounts I have shared are what I experienced in person — as recently as in 2017.
Even today, those people in the 16 reformatories are forced to stay awake for weeks to memorize the New Year’s speech, whether it gets them a handful of corn powder or not.
No North Korean is looking forward to the New Year’s speech.
During Kim Il Sung’s time, North Koreans naturally sat in front of the television on January 1, at 9 am, to watch his New Year’s speech.
Kim Jong Il carried it on by releasing a joint editorial instead of delivering it himself, and Kim Jong Un reinstated the speech after he came to power.
The people no longer heed the message, but they still get anxious during this time of the year.
January is a difficult month because the entire Party, the army, students — all people — are obligated to memorize the speech, study the speech, and participate in a recitation competition.
“People were even ready to go up to the sky and pick a star, or jump into the ocean with a bomb in their arms, if that was Kim Il Sung’s command”
Kim Il Sung’s speech was realistic to some degree.
Once he suggested a project for the new year, whether it regarded the economy, art, or sports, all the people and every unit strived to implement and accomplish the goal with a slogan: ‘Let’s thoroughly accomplish the task the Great Leader suggested in the New Year’s speech.”
It was posted on every street and in every factory.
Because Kim Il Sung was engraved as the Great Leader, deep in the hearts of North Koreans, people were even ready to go up to the sky and pick a star, or jump into the ocean with a bomb in their arms, if that was his command.
On January 1, 1995, the first New Year’s day after his death, people waited anxiously for the speech.
My father spoke in tears to us, his children, who gathered to observe the New Year: “I don’t know what’s going to happen to the New Year’s speech since our Leader is no longer here.”
Having worked for decades as a party cadre, he made every effort to implement whatever instructions were passed down by Kim Il Sung, and he taught his underlings as such.
That he could no longer hear the Leader’s New Year’s speech brought him much sorrow, it seemed.
My father — and the rest of us North Koreans who were fretting about the speech in 1995 — did not get one.
Instead, we received a readout of the joint editorial that represented Kim Jong Il, the Party, the People, and the Army.
“Kim Jong Il must be still grieving his father’s death, so is unable to greet us on the New Year,” we thought.
Kim Il Sung never skipped appearing on the New Year’s day, so people were understandably curious about how Kim Jong Il would continue his father’s tradition.
I felt something was missing when anchor Ri Chun Hee, in the place of the New Year’s speech, delivered the joint editorial carried by Rodong Sinmun, Korean People’s Army, and Chongnyon Jonwi. (Editor’s note: These are North Korean state-controlled newspapers.)
It suggested tasks of each department: politics, economy, culture, and sports. The message encouraged people to fulfill them, and shake off the sorrow of the Great Leader’s death, and instead to follow his teachings in unity.
My father made no comment, but silently dined and drank.
Later on, he said that Kim Jong Il was a tyrant, not living up to his father, to which I agreed.
My father passed away in December 1995. He devoted his life to his country to the fullest, but was unable to overcome the unprecedented hardships during the Arduous March.
In retrospect, I think he may have believed that North Korea had come to its end when Kim Il Sung died.
“‘Kim Jong Il must be still grieving his father’s death, so is unable to greet us on the New Year,’ we thought”
The new year’s joint editorial continued for as long as Kim Jong Il was alive.
When Kim Jong Un came to office, he appeared on television on the New Year as his grandfather did.
People were amazed, wondering if Kim Il Sung was reincarnated: “Our Great Leader pitied the starving and ragged people, and returned alive to take care of us!”
North Koreans hoorayed.
With each year passing, however, people learned of his despotic tendency, and grew fearful of him.
The projects suggested in the New Year’s speech were void of substance.
The earlier year’s tasks were not accomplished, but said to be complete, and new tasks were given for the coming year.
People no longer heeded Kim Jong Un’s voice.
The slogan says that the entire Party, the Army, and the People must rise up to implement the projects, but how can people live up to them when survival alone is already a struggle?
“Under Kim Jong Il, study sessions to memorize the New Year’s message were held as before, but the degree to which they were forced on the people required us to be more meticulous and thorough”
North Koreans still consider Kim Il Sung as a heaven-endowed great person who liberated the Korean people from the Japanese, led the victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War (Korean War), and established a nation to save the impoverished Korean people.
Kim Jong Il, on the contrary, was deemed to be an artist who was politics-illiterate, but assumed power merely thanks to his father.
Many people believe that he took advantage of the people’s loyalty to Kim Il Sung.
I think North Koreans were indeed generous to him because he was Kim Il Sung’s son.
In any case, for the 17 years of his reign, the term “joint editorial” replaced “New Year’s speech.”
Study sessions to memorize the New Year’s message were held as before, but the degree to which they were forced on the people required us to be more meticulous and thorough.
I think it was the authorities’ tactic to leave no room for any riots or grievances amid mass starvation.
The old saying goes, even the king can’t help poverty and starvation. The chances are even slimmer for a leader like Kim Jong Il — a political hoodlum and politics-illiterate — to turn around the hearts of the many.
People breathed a sigh of relief when his tyrannical rule came to an end after 17 years.
After his death appeared Kim Jong Un.
Similar to Kim Il Sung, he looked warm and generous. People rejoiced, saying that their hardship was over, and a good time had arrived.
The joy didn’t last very long. That he put to death his uncle, Jang Song Taek, was known across the country, and people began shaking their heads.
Public trust was further undermined when they gradually learned that the annual speech that they toiled to memorize was only for display.
In the 2016 New Year’s speech, it was suggested that the Pyongyang-Hyesan railroad be completed by October 2017, for which all the people were called to rise up and participate.
The construction, however, was still ongoing in October 2018, when I left the country.
“The livelihoods of the commoners only worsened, so people became indifferent to the New Year’s speech”
Those powerless and destitute workers were brought from each province, city, and county to work on the site, barely sustaining their own bodies.
Issuing orders may take Kim Jong Un little effort, but to those put to work in the cold, with little food provided, it must have been like torture.
With a lack of technology and equipment, the enormous amount of construction was largely dependent upon manpower, which may have been another reason for the delay.
In his New Year’s speech in 2014, Kim Jong Un proclaimed that in the coming five years, the ideology and legacy of his uncle Jang Song Taek would be wiped out from the Party, Army and people.
I was praying desperately for that commitment to be realized. Just like many people in prison, I was mainly thinking of the life-sentence that Jang Song Taek had enacted in 2004, because my sister was being punished by it.
Unfortunately, the law still exists in North Korea. Why would Kim Jong Un keep a legacy of Jang Song Taek when everything else about him is denied?
I see this as another piece of evidence of Kim Jong Un being a liar — a dictator who benefits from loyalists or rebels when necessary.
During Kim Il Sung’s time, people paid most attention to the economy section of the New Year’s speech, and strived to accomplish the tasks suggested to revitalize the economy.
Kim Jong Il’s joint editorials and Kim Jong Un’s speeches, however, have seemed to repeat the same old tasks with little accomplished.
The livelihoods of the commoners only worsened, so people became indifferent to the New Year’s speech. It is just an added burden to them, because they are told to memorize it.
“Each year, the New Year’s speech reads that the lives of the people will improve, but things haven’t gotten any better”
I think that the audience rating now would probably reach only 20 percent, from 100 percent during Kim Il Sung’s time, and about 60 percent during Kim Jong Il’s time.
I think these ratings reflect the quality of life of the ordinary people, which has hit the bottom of the world, and the hearts of the people who want to rise in revolt against the government.
The Pyongyang-Hyesan railroad construction that Kim Jong Un suggested in 2016 was eventually completed two years later than planned.
As such, he is unaware of the reality of the people and the economy.
He orders something to be done, but it is another thing to actualize it.
Each year, the New Year’s speech says that the lives of the people will improve, but things haven’t gotten any better.
North Koreans wish there was no more New Year’s speech.