By Nicholas Hamisevicz
It is the start of a new year, which means it is time to start parsing through North Korea’s New Year’s message. Like last year, Kim Jong Un delivered the New Year’s message in a speech. These are the first major policy guidelines and ideas announced since the purge of his uncle, Jang Song Taek. While not specifically mentioning his uncle, Kim Jong Un emphasized throughout his speech the importance and centrality of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Kim Jong Un referenced the goal of pursuing both economic growth and developing nuclear weapons, also known as the byungjin line, where he wants science and technology to be the driver for success. The speech lays out some points of emphasis that North Korea could undertake in 2014, but in dealing with North Korea, it will be how North Korea combines their rhetoric with action that determines events in 2014.
After the public purge of Jang Song Taek, the importance and centrality of the Party is the main theme. Early in the speech, Kim Jong Un states that the North Korean leadership “took the resolute measure of removing the factionalists lurking in the Party.” He followed that by emphasizing that the purge of these factionalists was a “correct decision.” Throughout the speech, the Party is said to be taking the lead role in the economy and that the North Korean army needs to be “unfailingly faithful to the Party, the leader, and the people.” Kim Jong Un also pushed for more ideological training for officials, military personnel and the people “to ensure that they think and act at all times and in all places in line with the Party’s ideas and intentions.” With the purge of Jang Song Taek indicating there was a least some disagreement within the North Korean leadership, the New Year’s speech appears to be trying to unite the country again under the Party leadership structure.
Looking for signs of economic reform or at least new areas of economic emphasis is always part of the New Year’s message analysis. This year, agriculture, construction, and science and technology stand out. Like last year’s speech, Kim Jong Un wants science and technology to create a shortcut to economic success. In 2013, he said North Korea should use science and technology as a “shortcut to the building of an economic giant.” This year, science and technology is a shortcut “to the building of a knowledge-based economy.” Kim Jong Un wants “scientific farming methods” to be used to “keep up agriculture as a major thrust” of North Korea’s goal to grow its economy and improve its people’s standard of living. During the previous years under Kim Jong Un, there was talk of allowing farmers to keep more of their yield. Like earlier New Year’s messages, we will have to wait to see if these points in the speech are actually implemented.
For the military sections of the speech, Kim Jong Un did not mention North Korea’s nuclear test in 2013, but he warned the United States that another war on the Korean peninsula “will result in a deadly nuclear catastrophe and the United States will never be safe.” He praised the army and the internal security forces for protecting North Korea during the exercises done by the United States and South Korea. Furthermore, Kim Jong Un repeatedly emphasized that the army is supposed to support the Party.
Kim Jong Un tried to separate out South Korea from the United States. In his speech, Kim Jong Un called on South Korea to stop using slanderous speech against the North, punishing those who appear more sympathetic to the North, and begin promoting reunification. Unlike the last few years, the 2014 New Year’s message did not specifically mention the 2000 and 2007 inter-Korean agreements. North Korea has again tried to put pressure on South Korea by stating it is open for dialogue and discussion; however, the actions and interactions between the two sides will again determine if these words in Kim Jong Un’s speech truly mean anything.
While 2014 has just begun, we can try to anticipate some of the events and situations that may occur this year based on the points of emphasis in the New Year’s speech. It seems the fallout of the purge of Jang Song Taek is still underway, so there will possibly be more purges or change in leadership roles in North Korea. There is also a likelihood of more ideological training and classes within North Korean cities and towns in order to try to maintain cohesion and belief in the Party leadership structure. Like last year, 2014 could be a year of tensions between North Korea and the United States. The United States and South Korea will again have to work closely during military exercises and periods of potential misunderstanding with North Korea.
Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech provides the world a starting point for analyzing North Korea in 2014. The internal dynamics of retaining Party centrality will be difficult to follow, but important to monitor. Moreover, how those internal dynamics spill over into relations with its neighbors will be important factors in how South Korea and the United States coordinate policies and actions toward North Korea. It does not appear that dealing with North Korea will get easier and Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech suggests significant challenges still remain.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from comradeanatolii’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.