North Korean party daily calls national defense “number one” priority
A Rodong Sinmun article emphasizing defense capabilities appears to signal yet another shift
The authoritative party daily Rodong Sinmun on September 26 published a “special article [ronsol],” explicitly stating that strengthening defense capabilities is the most important task facing the nation.
This theme was masked under a seemingly prosaic title, “National Affairs Stand Above Household Affairs,” and the predominant theme of giving priority to the greater good rather than one’s well-being.
North Korea uses “special articles” to indoctrinate the domestic populace on key ideological and political issues.
The party daily reinforced the importance of this September 26 special article by publishing it on the top left-hand corner of page two, which deviates from the norm for special articles on domestic ideological and political issues: bottom of page two.
The significance of this special article is its prioritization of strengthening defense capabilities above all else: not only is it much stronger than state media rhetoric on this topic during the weapons tests campaign from late July to mid-September, it appears to be the first time since the policy shift to the economy in April 2018 that North Korean domestic media has characterized national defense as the country’s foremost priority.
Moreover, the article seems to mark yet another shift in the past month in North Korea’s position on building defense capabilities, which in turn may impact or reflect its position on nuclear diplomacy with the U.S.
One possibility for this latest shift is that North Korea remains undecided about its policy on the U.S. and the DPRK-U.S. nuclear talks.
Another possibility is the North has a firm U.S. policy, but it remains skeptical about the outcome of DPRK-U.S. nuclear negotiations.
A third possibility is a policy decision still in the making and a lack of confidence in the talks outcome. Any one of these scenarios could have resulted in Pyongyang’s inconsistent messaging over the past month.
North Korean domestic media has not carried recent foreign ministry pronouncements expressing a willingness to return to working-level level talks. This gives Pyongyang wriggle room regarding its future course of action vis-a-vis the U.S. and nuclear talks.
If Kim Jong Un remains undecided on his U.S. policy or has doubts about the negotiations’ prospects, it may explain why North Korea continues to stall on talks and seek stronger reassurances from the U.S. — as indicated in a “press statement” by “advisor to the foreign ministry Kim Kye Gwan” on September 27 — all the while keeping other options open by keeping the military and the defense industry in the picture.
Evoking leaders’ quotes from the olden days
This special article said:
“Of all national affairs, the number one national affair is to strengthen the country’s national defense capabilities in every way, and it is our people’s sacred duty to sacrifice their everything to strengthening national defense capabilities. … In today’s world, which is rife with high-handedness and tyranny, one cannot defend one’s cradle of life if the gun barrel is weak… To our people, the gun barrel is life of the nation and the victory of the revolution.” (Bold added by the author for emphasis.)
The bolded passage resembles a line from Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address in 2014, his first such speech after the declaration of the byungjin line in March 2013:
“Strengthening national defense capabilities is the top national affair of national affairs, and the fatherland’s dignity and the people’s happiness and peace lie in a strong gun barrel.” (Bold added by the author for emphasis.)
This quote last appeared in North Korea’s domestic media in January 2018, before North Korea’s shift from byungjin to an economy-focused policy in April of that year.
Byungjin is North Korea’s policy of simultaneous development of nuclear arms and the economy.
“Gun barrel” is a reference to military power that frequently appeared in the days of Kim Jong Il’s military-first policy and Kim Jong Un’s byungjin line.
Prior to North Korea’s shift from byungjin to an economy-focused policy in 2018, state media frequently emphasized the importance of a “strong gun barrel” for the country’s peace.
The special article’s defense capabilities language also is evocative of Kim Jong Il’s quote, the bolded part of which was repeated throughout 2017:
“Military affairs are the number one national affair of all national affairs, and the national defense industry is the lifeline in building a wealthy and powerful fatherland.” (Bold added by the author for emphasis.)
Similarly, Rodong Sinmun in late August recycled, almost word-for-word, Kim Jong Un’s quote from a December 2017 national munitions industry meeting on the national defense industry leading economic construction.
Throwing in byungjin and ‘belt-tightening’
The special article also mentioned byungjin and ‘belt-tightening,” stating:
“Due to this painful experience [Japan’s colonization of Korea and the Korean War], our people have been able to walk along a difficult path of byungjin without hesitation and tirelessly, weather all obstacles, and build an independent and modern national defense industry. … Our people will glorify the priceless victories won by tightening their belts as even greater victories…” (Bold added by the author for emphasis.)
‘Belt-tightening,’ a euphemism for sacrificing national resources for building defense capabilities, is closely associated with the byungjin line and even Kim Jong Il’s military-first policy.
North Korean media have often mentioned byungjin and ‘belt-tightening’ even after the shift from byungjin to the economy in April 2018, but mostly in historical contexts.
The September 26 special article is worth noting for its use of byungjin in the present perfect tense, rather than the past tense. Although “tightening their belts” itself was used in the past tense, the intended course of action vis-a-vis its outcome — an apparent reference to the North’s weapons and weapons programs — was described in the future tense: “will glorify the priceless victories won by tightening their belts.” It is important to track how state media’s usage of byungjin and ‘belt-tightening’ may evolve in the coming months, given their associations with North Korea’s weapons development.
Notably, the term byungjin has appeared in high-level articles and speeches in recent months, though in historical contexts.
These include a rare Rodong Sinmun–Kulloja “joint special article” on July 13 and Choe Ryong Hae’s speech on June 29 marking the third anniversary of Kim’s election as State Affairs Commission (SAC) chairman.
Twists and turns
State media’s defense and defense industry rhetoric that began in late July culminated in the North Korean party daily’s publication in late August of highly unusual articles prioritizing the defense industry over the economy, which seemed to suggest that the top DPRK leadership might be considering a fundamental shift away from the economy-focused policy and return to byungjin.
Marking the first shift, the two key propaganda themes of strengthening defense and the defense industry disappeared from domestic state media after first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui’s “press statement” on September 9 expressing an intention to return to talks, and North Korea’s last weapon test on September 10.
In a “special article” published on September 17, the party daily listed defense last among the three factors making up “national power,” after politics and the economy.
It played up the economy by saying that it was “our party’s steadfast resolve and will to try to firmly solidify the country’s economic capabilities in the shortest period possible… .”
Marking the second shift, the September 26 special article returned to the national defense theme, escalating the tone and language by characterizing it as the nation’s foremost priority.
It also was a complete turnabout from the special article published only nine days before on September 17, not even mentioning the economy once.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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