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

The New Year’s Speech: Show Me the Money!

by | January 2nd, 2013 | 07:00 am
|

We confess to being worn down. Is it really worth it to read the New Year’s Editorial and try to figure out what secret messages it may hold? We tried last year, and found some relationship between food shortages and the emphasis placed on agriculture in the editorials over the last decade. But we also noted that the rhetorical emphasis did not appear to translate into anything substantive.

This year, the KCNA did not—as of press time—post an editorial. Rather, Kim Jong Un gave a New Year Address (here) The address included the paean to the elders, a commitment to juche and songun and led, not surprisingly, with the satellite/missile launch. Indeed, the space launch became the kind of overarching metaphor for the tasks of the new year.

The basic economic message seems to be “do everything,” which is really equivalent to not prioritizing anything at all. But it is possibly worse than that. The slogan for the year is “Let us bring about a radical turn in the building of an economic giant with the same spirit and mettle as were displayed in conquering space!” This approach suggests that the regime’s thinking is still locked into the idea of leapfrogging, “100 day battles,” and monumentalism; indeed, the first reference to economics in the speech is to “Juche-oriented and modern factories and enterprises and reconstructed major production bases in key industrial sectors on the basis of advanced science and technology…”

If there is any logic to the speech—a big assumption—it sounds like heavy industry comes first. (“By adopting decisive steps to shore up the vanguard sectors of the national economy and the sectors of basic industries, we should develop coal-mining, electric-power and metallurgical industries and rail transport on a preferential basis and provide a firm springboard for the building of an economic giant.”) This is disheartening to say the least, but who knows? In the next section, the speech says the country should concentrate on people’s livelihoods, agriculture and light industry “too,” and also with the increasing emphasis seen in recent speeches on “science and technology” as a panacea.

There is no hidden message with respect to reform that we could find. Changes in economic management will seek to improve the existing socialist system. There is not a hint of opening on the external sector.

On the foreign policy front, again, the missile launch is the metaphor (“The sector of defence industry should develop in larger numbers sophisticated military hardware of our own style that can contribute to implementing the Party’s military strategy, thereby fulfilling its mission as the arsenal of the powerful revolutionary army of Mt. Paektu.”) The message if anything is negative. Rather than launching, fulfilling the filial obligation to Kim Jong Il’s last wishes and moving on, the success could spur more investment in military hardware.

A long-standing feature of editorials with respect to North-South relations is to hold up the two North-South summits as crowning achievements. This year, the language was even more florid than usual (“All the Korean compatriots in the north, south and abroad should launch a dynamic struggle to carry out to the letter the June 15 Joint Declaration and the October 4 Declaration, great reunification programmes common to the nation in the new century and milestones for peace and prosperity.”) Perhaps the regime is hoping that the Park administration will seek to revive these commitments, but it is difficult to see that occurring absent progress on the nuclear issue.

The speech made no reference to the country’s nuclear capability, and this could be the one small positive we can eke out: better to be silent than to brandish them. The speech also closed with a mildly hopeful note (“By holding fast to the ideals of independence, peace and friendship, we will, in the future, too, strive to develop relations of friendship and cooperation with the countries that are friendly to our country out of their respect for its sovereignty, and safeguard regional peace and stability and make the whole world independent [sic].” If this is a bid for reciprocity, it should be explored. But what is on the table?

With respect to both economics and foreign policy, our slogan comes from Jerry McGuire: “show us the money.”