Kim Jong Un has delivered a long-winded harangue to a conference of ideological workers. This isn’t the sort of thing I tend to dwell on, because almost all foreign analysis of North Korean speeches is useless, for reasons I’ve already explained here. Perhaps I write this mostly in the interest of preempting the acceptance of even more useless analysis, but I also write this because the plain meaning of the words seems clear enough to me, and what those words tell us is important to how we formulate our North Korea policy.
Most of the speech is devoted to a call to crush “factionalism” and “alien” ideology. One inference this invites is obvious — why would Kim Jong Un have to warn against factionalism unless there is factionalism?
As a saying goes that even a rolling stone may gather moss, one is bound to degenerate when treated exceptionally. There may be some special tasks assigned by the Party, but “exceptions” cannot exist within our Party who are allowed to neglect their ideological life and be ignorant of its lines and policies. As for special units, ideological work should be strengthened further and they should be made steel-strong in the furnace of ideological struggle.
This was probably the creepiest line:
Ideological workers should be able to discern something alien, if any, at a glance at the eyes of others. They must use the ideological “scalpel” in time to root out the causes of such misdemeanors as arguing over the issues decided by the Party, undermining its leadership exploits covertly or overtly and breeding corruption within our ranks in contravention of our Party’s and class principles.
I’ll admit that I couldn’t force myself to read the whole speech, but I’m confident that somewhere in this haystack, John DeLury, Alexandre Mansourov, James Church, or Rudiger Frank will find a straw to grasp and declare on the pages of 38 North that perestroika is breaking out. But when you read that, remember that you also read this part:
We should build a thriving country at an early date by giving fullest play to the advantages and might of socialism, which capitalism can never imitate nor possess, so as to make socialism as different in all respects from capitalism as heaven is from earth.
[Ideological workers] should take the initiative in launching operations to make the imperialist moves for ideological and cultural infiltration end in smoke, while putting up “mosquito net” double and treble to prevent the viruses of capitalist ideology which the enemy is persistently attempting to spread from infiltrating across our border.
It’s also increasingly plain what Kim Jong Un fears most. One of them is financial sanctions:
History clearly shows how a powerful country, which is independent, self-sufficient and self-reliant in national defence, has been built on this land where worship of big countries and dogmatism were rooted deep and a socialist fortress created, which remains unperturbed in the face of worldwide political upheaval and the imperialists’ vicious moves for isolation and suffocation.
The other is losing control over what his subjects see, hear, and read:
Now the imperialists are hell-bent on a smear campaign to turn black into white and persisting in their attempts to infiltrate corrupt reactionary ideology and culture into our country with our service personnel and young people as the target, while clinging to manoeuvres to apply sanctions against our country and stifle it. Whereas the reactionary ideology and culture were their guide to aggression in the past, they are playing a leading part in aggression at present.
One of the wishful theories we heard after the purge of Jang Song Thaek is that Kim Jong Un had consolidated his rule, was no longer challenged by domestic enemies, and was now free to pursue reforms. If this sounds dumb, that’s because it is. Many things about North Korea’s political situation are unknown, but if Kim Jong Un’s rule really had been consolidated, he would not have spent most of this speech talking about the urgency of consolidating it. And whether it has been consolidated or not, this speech suggests the opposite of an intent to reform North Korea’s economy of society. Its unmistakable message is a call for more isolation, more repression, more “socialism,” more defiance of the world, and more vigilance over any contact with the outside world (this rule, like all the rules, doesn’t apply to Kim Jong Un himself).
Perestroika is not breaking out, no matter how badly we may wish it were. Fantasy is no substitute for policy.