The hidden clues in Kim Jong Un’s New Year address
For the fifth time, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un has delivered a New Year address, a departure from his father’s reliance on the annual joint editorial in North Korea’s newspapers and media. In some ways, the 2017 New Year Address follows the same outline of past years. In its overt focus on nuclear weapons capability, however, it varies from the mold.
— Stratfor (@Stratfor) January 1, 2017
Beginning in 2013, Kim Jong Un began delivering a televised New Year Address, in part to assert his role as the new leader of North Korea and in part to highlight the differences between his style and that of his father, Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Un has attempted to mold his image (both figuratively and literally) more on that of his grandfather, North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, than on his late father. This reinforced the long lineage of Kim family leadership and allowed the new Kim to distance himself from some of the more standoffish behavior of his father.
Kim’s New Year addresses all follow the same basic formula:
- Greeting to soldiers; comrades; Koreans in the South and abroad; and to all progressive peace loving people around the world.
- Extoll the successes of the previous year despite privations and hardships.
- Note the challenges of the new year and list any special anniversaries.
- Identify priorities for the coming year. This includes a large focus on science and technology, attention to key economic sectors (energy production and conservation; coal mining; steel and metallurgy; chemicals; light industry and agriculture), infrastructure (rail transport and the construction sector), and social well-being (education, sports, ideology, health care and culture). In recent years, it has also increased calls for natural resource preservation, planting trees and avoiding pollution.
- Declare the year’s patriotic motivational slogan (this may come before or in the midst of the priorities for the year).
- Provide a targeted note to the military, internal security apparatus and social organizations centered on internal security and unity.
- Provide a note to officials, demanding that they act as servants of the people.
- Call for unification (highlighting the efforts the North took in the previous year to encourage unification; criticizing the South for blocking and counteracting those efforts; berating the United States for splitting the Koreas and blocking unification; and reiterating the call for unification on a bilateral basis, without foreign interference or involvement).
- A final closing call to strive together toward the future.
For the most part, each of his five addresses follows this pattern, and often with the same basic priorities. Still, there are minor differences over the five years. In 2013, Kim highlighted the successful satellite launch by North Korea (and rolled the space program into the annual slogan). He also called on officials to make a “fundamental turnabout in their ideological viewpoint,” – something that foreshadowed a comment in 2014 where he declared a victory of the previous year was the removal of “factionalists lurking in the Party.” In 2014, he also called for the establishment of a “monolithic leadership system” in the party, part of his consolidation of power and reinvigoration of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and asserted that North Korea would defend its sovereignty and dignity through strength.
The interesting variant in 2015’s address was a call to eliminate formalism and stereotyped patterns of combat from military training, foreshadowing the acceleration and change in the North’s military training cycle. Kim’s 2016 address highlighted some minor technological advances (indigenously-produced subway cars and light aircraft), but continued a call for reform in the Party, urging a struggle against abuse of power, bureaucratism and corruption, and emphasizing that the worship of big countries was the road to ruin. This later point was both a reinforcement of the repeated mantra of indigenous development and self-reliance, and also perhaps an aspersion at an internal attempts to use China’s development path as a model for North Korea.
In 2017, the theme of self-reliance and self-development continued to pervade the address. Kim appeared to be solidifying his call for the creation of a “powerful socialist country” as the new guiding mantra, building atop his father’s Songun and his grandfather’s Juche ideologies. This appears to follow the dual path of military and economic development espoused at other times by the North Korean leader. Toward this end, perhaps the most significant change in 2017 was to explicitly mention North Korea’s nuclear program, rather than alluding to it simply as self-defense or strength as had been the case in the past.
In the highlights of the previous year, Kim declared that North Korea had “achieved the status of a nuclear power,” and that the North had “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.” Kim continued on this theme in his closing remarks, noting that the “pivot” of North Korea’s self-defense against the United States was its nuclear forces and the capability of a preemptive strike. There was little room for guessing in these phrases, no aphorisms or metaphors for the nuclear weapon and missile programs. This appears to reinforce the assessment that the North no longer considers its nuclear program a bargaining chip, in the traditional sense, but rather that as an untradable asset upon which economic strength can be built.
— Stratfor (@Stratfor) January 2, 2017
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the 2017 address, however, was Kim adding a humanizing touch at the end, admitting a “surge of anxiety” about what he could do to better serve the people and “feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of [his] ability.” It is unclear what specifically triggered this public rededication to “become a true servant loyal to our people who faithfully supports them with a pure conscience.” But perhaps it is about finally asserting his own leadership style after years of consolidating his position and undertaking a restructuring of the internal balance of power.
There is a nostalgia in Kim’s assertions, a harkening back to the idealized views of the early days of Kim Il Sung’s time, when an avuncular leader oversaw the reconstruction of a North Korea devastated by war and for a time, with Soviet assistance, vastly outpaced the South’s economic growth. Kim also called for a revitalization of North Korea physically, from replanting forests to improving the looks of buildings and the countryside, another symbol of revitalization and his new “powerful socialist country” vision.
Like the earlier joint editorials in the North Korean media, Kim’s New Year addresses may easily be over-interpreted by overseas observers. But for the insight they do offer, tracking the minor changes over the years does provide at least some additional insight into the way Kim is now trying to shape his image at home and abroad. With this latest address, we may soon be seeing a more confident Kim asserting his own leadership style.