PIIE Blog | North Korea: Witness to Transformation
The Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan
research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. More › ›
Subscribe to North Korea: Witness to Transformation Search
North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Kim Jong Un’s Songun Lecture

by | September 10th, 2013 | 07:00 am

Leaders’ speeches are complex signals: to elites, to masses, to foreigners and in some rare cases for posterity as well. For those watching North Korea, we are always interested in the strategic direction of the country: where the leadership is headed. Kim  Jong Un’s recent lecture on songun (“Let Us Add Eternal Brilliance to Comrade Kim Jong Il’s Great Idea and Achievement of the Military-First (So’ngun) Revoluton”) provides plenty of opportunity for reading tea leaves. While committing firmly to continuity in the military-first line, the speech’s praise of the military could also be read as a rightward feint; the lecture also notes the primacy of the leader and party, the need for absolute loyalty and the role of the army not only in “revolution” but also in “construction.”  (The speech can be accessed via KCNA if you go to August 25, or in more user-friendly format with commentary on North Korea Leadership Watch. Yonhap offers an interpretation similar to ours).

The excuse for the speech is a little-noticed event (at least by us): Kim Jong Il’s visit to Seoul Ryu Kyong Su (Yu Kyo’ng-su) Guards 105th Tank Division of the KPA on August 25, 1960; by our calculation, Kim Jong Il was 19 at the time. Nonetheless this visit—apparently the first of many visits to military units—is now dated as the start of his “So’ngun-based leadership” and has been designated as another national holiday.

Much of the speech is a recitation of the role of the military in the life of the nation: in the two revolutionary wars—against the Japanese and Americans—and as the leading force of the revolution in the face of international pressure from imperialism. Repeatedly, the speech emphasizes the role of discipline and the military as a model for party officials and the people.

But the speech also has a lot of interesting material (by North Korean standards!) on the formal position of the military in the overall political system and their assigned role (all italics below are added). The message: songun does not mean “military in control.”

  • “[Kim Jong Il] defined the spirit of defending the leader unto death, the spirit of implementing his instructions at any cost and the self-sacrificing spirit displayed by the service personnel…thus ensuring that a great turn and changes were brought about in all sectors of the revolution and construction.” The reference to “revolution and construction” in the same breath recurs throughout the speech.
  • The 1998 Constitution gave songun its official form, with the National Defense Commission as the nerve-center. (“In order to consolidate the successes of his So’ngun-based leadership and administer Songun politics in a comprehensive way, he saw to it that the First Session of the Tenth Supreme People’s Assembly [held on 5 September 1998]…adopted the Socialist Constitution that embodies the idea and principles of the So’ngun revolution and established a new state administration structure, whose backbone is the National Defence Commission.)
  • But the idea of subordination of the military to core centers of power is a recurrent theme: “Its (ie., songun’s) most important requirement is that the army should be developed into the army of the Party and the leader…” Later in the speech this is elaborated again: “The most important guarantee for victory in the revolution is to strengthen the party, the General Staff of the revolution, and solidify the driving force of the revolution by uniting the service personnel and people around it. A fundamental principle which the great General consistently adhered to in the building of our Party was to build it into the party of the leader.” And yet again: “The most important guarantee for victory in the revolution is to strengthen the party, the General Staff of the revolution, and solidify the driving force of the revolution by uniting the service personnel and people around it.” And yet again: “Leadership of the Party is the lifeline of the KPA, and its might is inconceivable separated from the leadership of the Party.”
  • Songun and juche are identified, and the speech segues into a discussion of the demands of socialist reconstruction. “While discharging their basic duty of defending the country, the service personnel should make breakthroughs in several sectors and major projects of socialist construction, and never feel contented in doing things for the people but always take the lead in this regard.” The speech then does what economic speeches always do in North Korea, which is to prioritize everything and therefore nothing: military industry, light industry and agriculture, basic industry, science and technology (in that order).
  • But the deeper message is that the KPA does not stand apart from these national goals and may be called on to fulfill them. The speech introduces the idea of “joint operations” in the process of construction: “The service personnel and people should propel the grand socialist construction on the strength of joint operation.” The speech goes on to say that “The commanding personnel of the KPA and leading civilian officials should scrupulously organize and command the joint operations and enlist their spiritual strength and all means to perform unfailingly and in time the revolutionary tasks assigned to their respective units.” The speech makes reference to the Masik Pass model, which we dissected in an earlier post. The thrust of that speech, as we read it, is that the KPA has an economic as well as military role.

What conclusions can we draw, if any? Most are not heartening.

  • Songun continues to be official ideology and the regime is doubling down on continuity with Kim Jong Il.
  • Songun is what its common translation suggests: a strategic line that gives priority to the military as an organization.
  • At the same time, the leadership is very intent on reminding the KPA that the leader and party are ultimately the center of the political system, that absolute loyalty is required to whatever they say, and that the military’s task are not only the defense of the nation but reconstruction–and whatever else the leader may choose to deploy them to do, even if it is building an ill-fated ski resort.

All of this underscores a point we continue to make: the regime has clearly survived, but the succession is by no means completely consolidated. On the same day the speech was reported, DPRK state media also reported on an “expanded meeting” of the Korean Workers’ Party Central Military Commission [CMC]. The last time such a meeting was called it was probably to ratify the decision to undertake the third nuclear test. This time, however, the expanded meeting also addressed “organizational issues.” “Organizational issues” typically mean personnel decisions; there is once again speculation that the pecking order at the top of the KPA has been reshuffled (again, North Korea Leadership Watch: “Note that Col. Gen. Ri Yong Gil (Ri Yo’ng-kil) is listed in the same place as Chief of the KPA General Staff Kim Kyok Sik.  DPRK state media does mess around with the order in which senior DPRK officials’ names are called or named in its news accounts so Col. Gen. Ri’s name in the hierarchy may be a one-off event; however there is a possibility Col. Gen. Ri has replaced Gen. Kim.”) Dong-a Ilbo, however, cites unnamed South Korean experts and intelligence to the effect that these issues might reflect an effort to institutionalize decision-making over warmaking by vesting power jointly in the NDC, CMC and Supreme Command.

How much confidence do we have in our interpretation? Little; alternatives are more than welcome in the comments section below.