It has been five years now that Kim Jong Un has spoken to North Korea as the country’s leader in the traditional New Year’s address. But what’s new this year?
Firstly, mentions of his father and grandfather have, again, decreased considerably.
In 2013’s address, “Kim Il Sung” and “Kim Jong Il” appeared 25 times and 11 times in 2014’s. None were included in 2015’s address, being replaced with more indirect terms like “general” or “Suryong,” meaning “leader” in Korean.
In last year’s address, even these indirect terms were no longer present, and any direct or indirect terms referring to the leadership of Kim’s father and grandfather disappeared from this year’s address.
Second, there are fewer references to “Songun,” the military-first policy of North Korea. The usage of the word has fallen since Kim Jong Un’s era, and the word practically disappeared from this year’s address.
Third, there is the appearance of new Kim Jong Un-style slogans. The words that represent former leader Kim Jong Il’s national vision are Kangsŏngdaeguk or Kangsŏnggukka, both meaning “a vigorous and prosperous country.”
But instead of those two terms, the word Sahoejuui-gangguk (a powerful socialist nation) appeared five times, hinting that this phrase is a new “Kim Jong Un-style slogan.”
First used during the 2016 address, the term Jagangnyeok or Jagang (self-sustainability) was introduced more often this year, appearing five times.
To survive international sanctions, the North has to choose either one of two options: concentrate all of its internal capabilities or depend on help from other nations, like China.
Another interesting aspect was Kim Jong Un’s attempt at looking humble towards the end of the address.
“Seeing that another year has started, my heart grows heavy with thoughts on how I may serve our people – the best in the world who trust and supports me with their solidarity – better and higher this year,” the leader said.
“I have spent the whole year with regrets and a guilty conscience, to see my ability failing to reach what I have planned for the people. This year, I have made up my mind to spur on to greater efforts and to devote all of myself to the people.”
It’s possible that Kim wants to build an image of himself as a merciful leader. As his power has stabilized, Kim seems to have begun to transform himself into a “friendly Suryong” rather than the “overwhelming leader” he was tried to be seen as in the past.
THE NUCLEAR OPTION?
During this year’s address, Kim stated that multiple ballistic launches and its “hydrogen bomb” test from the last year have “prepared the powerful military means” that will successfully boost the DPRK’s steps towards becoming a powerful socialist nation.
Kim has also said that “Pyongyang will reach the final preparation stages for test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).”
It is a bit of a forced interpretation to believe that the North will soon launch another ICBM. Kim’s statement came when he was discussing the military achievements of 2016, and was not necessarily a “prediction” of the North’s future.
We have to remember that in 2016, while that year’s address did not say much about the series of weapon tests to come, the North still launched many missiles and conducted two nuclear tests.
North Korea’s past New Year’s addresses included references to Pyongyang’s struggle against “imperialists,” especially the U.S., who are trying to suffocate the North Korean leadership, Kim said.
However, this year the North urged more “active confrontation” against its foes, in contrast with the “passive response” they have argued for in the past.
“We must defend our nation’s peace and safety with our hands, and will also significantly contribute to the world’s peace and stability,” Kim said.
This sentence, from its context, should be interpreted as Pyongyang now seeing itself as an Eastern nuclear power state – one which has grown to the point where it can compete with other powerful nations.
KIM’S ACHILLES TENDON
What also grabbed my attention was Kim’s display of extreme interest in the five-year economic growth plan, a plan announced last year and one that is set to continue until 2020.
This is the North’s first long-term plan since the 3rd seven-year economic growth plan, which lasted from 1987 to 1993.
But the road ahead is bumpy. Very little is know about this plan, as it was introduced only vaguely and generally during last year’s Seventh Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party.
The most significant variable that will decide the fate of the five-year plan are the international sanctions imposed against Pyongyang, that will continue – or may get more severe – throughout 2017.
However, even under the under the assumption that Beijing remains lukewarm in pressuring the North, it is still questionable if Pyongyang may be able to reach for more meaningful economic growth.
Since Kim Jong Un took power, one of the most significant characteristics of the North’s inter-Korean tactics has been its reactions to internal politics in South Korea.
During this year’s address, Kim stated that the North might negotiate with the South.
Kim also claimed that ongoing protests in South Korea are the outcome of South Koreans’ “explosion of anger and hatred towards the conservative government” which practiced “fascist dictatorship and anti-people policies.”
An interesting part was found further below when Kim said Park Geun-hye’s full name and referred to her as an “anti-Unification force” which needs to be swept away.
Kim’s message is simple: Pyongyang, until the end of the current South Korean government, is not interested in engaging any meaningful talks with Seoul.
In some sense, we can say that the Pyongyang government under Kim Jong Un’s rule has begun to develop and send more “polished” messages to Seoul.
Like the many other New Year’s addresses around the globe, the North Korean leader’s address is a rare opportunity to understand the outline of Pyongyang’s major policies for this year.
Kim has made it very clear that he will no longer depend on the “halo” of the former leaders, but will run the country according to his own unique political vision.