Readers know that I’ve been critical of those who cherry-pick words out of North Korean dictators’ rambling New Year speeches to find evidence to support their arguments. Having made the sacrifice of actually reading this one (full text below the jump), I would not characterize it as profoundly different from the same old crap North Korean dictators have told their subjects year after year. No, it was not quite a North Korean “malaise speech,” but it was filled with clear (if tacit) acknowledgments that the byungjin policy (nukes plus economic development) hasn’t delivered the “white rice and meat soup” Kim Jong-un promised North Koreans five years ago.
So, on guard against overstating the significance of what follows, this language shows more contrition and introspection than I’m accustomed to from North Korean tyrants.
My desires were burning all the time, but I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my ability. I am hardening my resolve to seek more tasks for the sake of the people this year and make redoubled, devoted efforts to this end.
Previously, all the people used to sing the song We Are the Happiest in the World, feeling optimistic about the future with confidence in the great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I will work with devotion to ensure that the past era does not remain as a moment in history but is re-presented in the present era. On this first morning of the new year I swear to become a true servant loyal to our people who faithfully supports them with a pure conscience.
Alternative translation here, via NK News. Of course, Kim Jong-un and his father have struck notes of contrition in these speeches before. The theme of a self-sacrificing paternal leader deeply concerned for the welfare of his subjects is an old one in North Korean propaganda. Even so, this seems even more contrite than usual. I haven’t the time or the stomach to do a line-by-line linguistic comparison, but I don’t recall His Porcine Majesty having used — or closed with — such strong language before. Clearly, he knows that things should have been better by now. He knows that his people are unhappy with their standard of living, and perhaps more. Whoever wrote the text saw a need for him to acknowledge the misery of his people, lest he seem detached or callous about it.
Contrast Kim’s aspirational claims about prosperity and economic development with his claims of “consolidating the defence capability of Juche Korea” and that North Korea had “achieved the status of a nuclear power, a military giant, in the East which no enemy, however formidable, would dare to provoke.” There’s nothing aspirational about that. Still, it can’t be lost on his people that he’d traded away their prosperity for his nukes, so he tried to project blame:
Even though the enemy grew more blatant in their obstructive schemes and severe difficulties cropped up one after another, all the service personnel and people drew themselves closer together around the Party and waged a vigorous struggle in the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance and fortitude. This was how they achieved the world-startling, miraculous successes under such trying circumstances.
Last year the imperialist reactionary forces’ moves for political and military pressure and sanctions against our country reached an extreme. But they failed to break the faith of our service personnel and people in victory, and could not check the vigorous revolutionary advance of Juche Korea.
We should resolutely thwart the enemy’s sinister and pernicious schemes to check the warm and pure-hearted aspiration of our people who follow the Party single-heartedly and to alienate the Party from them.
Other statements in the speech acknowledged social and political problems that belied the many claims of single-hearted unity.
We should thoroughly apply the people-first doctrine, the crystallization of the Juche-oriented view on the people, philosophy of the people, in Party work and all the spheres of state and social life, and wage an intensive struggle to root out abuses of power, bureaucratism and corruption that spoil the flower garden of single-hearted unity.
They should resolutely break with defeatism, self-preservation, formalism and expediency, and devote their heart and soul to the struggle for carrying out the Party’s plans and intentions.
There may be various reasons why Kim Jong-un’s birthday celebrations were relatively muted this year. He may be sensitive about his age, but I suspect that the idolization of Kim would be more advanced by now if the regime believed that he was deeply and genuinely popular.
Reportedly out of concern for adverse publicity, the regime has banned public executions (it’s killing people privately instead). Kim Jong-un has even reportedly told his security forces to stop searching homes without warrants(!) due to “escalating disgruntlement and official complaints to the district office over the the tyrannical behavior of law enforcement officers.” That is the kind of order that seems unlikely to stick in practice, but if it’s true, it would be evidence of discontent with security crackdowns like those that preceded last year’s party Congress. The Daily NK also points to other, more recent acts of protest. See also this post.
More than 1,400 North Koreans defected from North to South in 2016, a rise of 11 percent. This is the first increase since Kim Jong-un’s succession, but that is not necessarily useful evidence for measuring popular morale. More likely, it indicates that an initially successful crackdown on border control is flagging due to low morale and indiscipline within the border guard force (as with the rest of the military) and due to the destruction of border posts and fences, and the border guards themselves, by last year’s floods.
What does seem significant for morale, however, is that higher-ranking North Koreans and those of higher “songbun” (political loyalty classification) are defecting in higher numbers, for reasons that are more political than material. Some reports attribute this to sanctions, which may be partially true — North Korean elites posted overseas have rigid quotas for sending cash back to Pyongyang. In some cases, those who can’t meet those quotas due to sanctions may be tempted to defect rather than return home. That North Korean workers in Russia report an increase in wage theft may mean that they’re being squeezed to make up for revenue lost elsewhere (which in turn leads to more group defections like this one — the “death spiral” I’ve spoken of before). That many of the elites are afraid of being purged is another likely factor.
Overall, however, the prospect of a long, bleak future under Kim Jong-un and the fading of any hopes that he would be a reformer may well be the greatest cause of North Korea’s malaise. I’ll give Thae Yong-ho the last word:
“As the Kim Jong-un regime took power, I had a slight hope that he would make a rational, reasonable regime because he must be well aware of how the world runs after he studied overseas for a long time,” Thae said. But Kim turned out even more merciless than his father and late leader Kim Jong-il, he said, citing the shocking public execution of the leader’s once-powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013 as one of the moments of awakening that eventually solidified his decision to defect. [Yonhap]
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Update: More here.