Kim Jong Un’s new year address marking the start of the new year was perhaps the most anticipated of what has by now become a regular staple of his rule much like that of Kim Il-sung whom he seeks to emulate in style and tone. The ushering in of 2017 had Kim declaring North Korea would test an ICBM, as it indeed did. The 2018 address marked the onset of the rapprochement between North and South Korea and, ultimately in train, the US-DPRK denuclearisation talks. Both declarations came as a surprise. The stalled denuclearisation talks and various commentaries and statements warning about this from those lower on the totem pole than Kim had many anticipating what Kim might say regarding the diplomatic process and what Pyongyang would do should they collapse. Some even anticipated a statement that North Korea would begin Chinese style market reforms.
This time the address was more guarded, which is not to say that 2019 will not prove to be an eventful year on a par with 2017 and 2018. Kim has written a letter to both Moon and Trump so there may well be more, hidden to the public eye, regarding Kim’s intentions unknown to us. Early in the address Kim referred to the third plenary session of the seventh KWP central committee in April 2018, where Pyongyang announced its new line of concentrating on economic development given the completion of its nuclear deterrence capabilities. It would be asking too much of an address such as this to articulate a new policy beyond that adopted by the central committee plenum. Notice that Kim attributes the completion of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent force as the catalyst enabling this, which strongly implies that Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrent functions as a shield behind which it can further pursue economic development. That makes sense to the extent that we live in a mercantilist or neomercantilist world.
The full text of the address is available here and it was also accompanied by a much more compact KCNA statement of its main themes. There is an online, albeit snippet only, video dubbed in English
Both the address and the KCNA statement early, and frequently, emphasise socialist construction. You will not find any references to either socialism or socialist construction in Xi Jinping’s new year address, although Xi did speak of widening market type reforms. In Marxist-Leninist theory socialist construction refers to the state, led by a vanguard party, developing the political, economic, cultural and intellectual life of a society toward socialism. In all the commentary and analysis in the West this emphasis has been ignored or dismissed, but that is a significant analytical error whatever you might think of the concept. That’s because it is that concept that integrates all the parts (economic development, North-South rapprochement, foreign policy, defence policy, culture, and US-DPRK relations) into a clearly recognisable and consistent whole.
For 2019 Kim stated, ‘”let us open a new road of advance for socialist construction under the uplifted banner of self-reliance!’–this is the slogan we should uphold.” There are many references also to self-reliance, a theme to which we return.
Most of the address was devoted to matters of economic development. Kim declared that the year should see the improvement of “planning, pricing, and monetary and financial management,” on its own certainly an interesting statement, however all this needs to be done “in line with socialist economic law.” The main emphasis, however, is on solving the energy problem, “we should direct primary efforts to relieving the shortage of electricity to make a breakthrough in revitalizing the national economy” with coal production at the forefront. There’s a good analysis of this, and the difficulties North Korea will face, in this Reuters report here. Kim did make mention of nuclear power here without elaborating further. North Korea has always had long run plans for building nuclear reactors for energy generation and is building an experimental light water 30MWe reactor (ELWR) at Yongbyon. This suggests that whatever Washington’s conception of denuclearisation the elimination of the nuclear power option is not part of Pyongyang’s conception. In a North-South summit last year Pyongyang did offer to dismantle Pyongyang in exchange for unspecified US concessions, and Kim’s remark here implies that what is being referred to is the fissile material production facilities at Yongbyon. What role the uranium enrichment plant plays here is not clear. North Korea claims that it is for producing low enriched uranium, not weapons grade uranium, to fuel the ELWR. It has been supposed that the uranium enrichment plan at Yongbyon was built to trade away while North Korea retains enrichment plants elsewhere for fissile material production. Nothing in Kim’s remarks nor in the dismantlement offer is inconsistent with this.
If you adopt the view that North Korea’s conception of denuclearisation does not equate to disarmament much less complete dismantlement, a plausible position in my view, one could argue that Kim here is angling for an India type deal where North Korea separates its nuclear facilities into civil and military ones, and thereupon subjects the civil facilities to safeguards. The uranium enrichment plant, from what is known of it, at Yongbyon is certainly sized to support the operation of the ELWR. The military aspect the North would keep low key as it lowers the salience of nuclear deterrence in its international relations hence “denuclearisation.”
As in previous years there’s an emphasis on science and technology boosting the productive base of the economy although one gets the impression that is tempered this time by exhortations to a sort of “triumph of the will” that goes beyond the material. So we get, “we should rely on our own technical forces and resources and the high creative spirit and revolutionary enthusiasm of all the people so as to succeed in attaining the strategic goals of national economic development and enter a new stage of growth.”
Kim Jong-un repeated North Korea’s call for the South not to allow Washington’s use of a demand for disarmament prior to the lifting of maximum pressure sanctions to block inter Korean rapprochement. Kim called for the further implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration in 2019 and he also stated a desire to take measures to develop mutual confidence and security building measures across the entire Korean peninsula, not just along the “areas of confrontation.” Trump, and not just him, has taken the view it is the US-DPRK talks that have led to Pyongyang ceasing missile and nuclear testing. I would take the view that it is the DPRK-ROK talks that are responsible for this; Pyongyang is trying to take the heat out of the nuclear confrontation to support diplomacy with Seoul which, in turn, requires some progress to cover its right flank domestically and its alliance relationship with the US. In effect Kim here appears to be saying that Seoul needs to recognise that it can and will only go thus far and no further on the nuclear front and this should not be allowed to stall the pace and scope of rapprochement.
There are two differing analyses of the nuclear aspects to the Kim address here by Robert Carlin at 38North and here by Jeffrey Lewis at The National Interest. Carlin’s analysis is more optimistic than that of Lewis. I think that Carlin makes some good points here, especially when carefully dissecting certain of Kim’s remarks, but nonetheless his analysis is overdrawn in this case. This is a danger of Kremlinology type analyses which sees in every nuance recursive, ever deeper, layers of meaning. As my take in this post suggests, I think Lewis has the better of the argument here. Lewis suggests North Korea has overstated the import of its actions on the nuclear front, it’s not just Trump that has overplayed nuclear diplomacy,
North Korea has consistently exaggerated the benefit of these steps—characterizing the dismantlement of the test site as “a physical verification of the suspension of ICBM manufacture” when it is nothing of the sort and describing the Yongbyon as a core facility for producing nuclear weapons while not acknowledging the existence of other sites
Lewis suggests that Kim is setting up Trump to take the blame should the US-DPRK talks collapse. Doubtless there is a kernel of truth to that, but the real issue for us, I have long maintained, is testing how far Kim is prepared to go through engagement in a tit-for-tat process that is supportive of North-South rapprochement and which in itself contributes to stability. The Korean War is the underlying source of the problem, the elimination or amelioration of which is critical to strategic stability. Kim in his address did make the statement that what has been agreed to and achieved thus far constitutes a type of “virtual non aggression pact.” The objective, for now, should be eliminating the threat of nuclear war. Thus far the diplomatic processes have contributed to this, but the situation nonetheless remains fragile.
Now should the US-DPRK talks collapse Kim stated that, “we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.”
What that new way might be was left unspecified. It has been suggested that this would mean a return to missile testing and the like. Kim might leaver his nuclear capabilities in a way that leaves open a “threat that leaves something to chance” to coerce the dismantling of economic sanctions. The problem with that view is that this threatens North-South rapprochement which Pyongyang values highly.
Ruediger Frank at 38North here has suggested that this is a reference to deepening ties with China. Kim’s three day visit to China has been categorically interpreted in this way for example by Anna Fifield at The Washington Post here without any real supporting evidence. Frank may be right, but the thing is Kim has gone to Beijing at the invitation of Xi not upon his own initiative. Furthermore, a second summit between Kim and Trump is on the cards, perhaps in Hanoi, and Kim has always been careful to keep Beijing in the loop both before and after major diplomatic initiatives with the US. But more importantly we come back to self-reliance. North Korea would not want to remain a dependency of China. South Korea would have to be strung along, but that is hard to see happening given the importance Seoul attaches to its political and economic relationship with Washington.
That said, Frank could be on to something. The building of ties with China, South Korea, and Russia separate to the US offers scope for a more integrated Northeast Asian economic space autonomous to the US. A more autonomous Europe and a more autonomous Northeast Asia has been a core concern of Washington planners for many years as either or both would affect the US position in Eurasia. Whatever you might think of Frank’s position regarding this highly cryptic passage one think is clear. Frank reminds us that these parallel developments occur in a broader geopolitical context and the nuclear aspect to the Korean peninsula needs to be viewed within that wider context rather on its own terms.
As Carlin correctly points out Kim did express a positive disposition to once again meeting with Trump. Toward the second summit we appear to be heading. Hopefully, we won’t get to know what Kim means by a new way but that is very much a real prospect.