Some foreign commentators found it a significant change that Kim Jong-un in this year’s New Year’s address seldom mentioned grandfather Kim Il-sung and father Kim Jong-il.
But in fact he didn’t have much need to mention his ruling forebears by name. Particularly regarding economic policy, much of what he said in the speech sounded like a almost word-for-word retread of the exhortations that issued from the pair of them over the decades following Kim Il-sung’s Soviet-sponsored installation as North Korea’s top leader in the 1940s.
“We should concentrate our efforts on implementing the five-year strategy for national economic development,” Kim proclaimed, according to the English translation provided by the ruling Workers’ Party’s newspaper Rodong Shinmun. “Let us accelerate the vigorous advance of socialism with the great spirit of self-reliance and self-development as the dynamic force!”
Like his dynastic predecessors, when young Kim spoke about the economy he meant the state-run economy – especially extraction and heavy industry. He placed “main emphasis on ensuring the domestic production of raw materials, fuel and equipment.”
“The electric-power, metallurgical and chemical industries should take the lead in the efforts to hit the targets of the economic strategy,” Kim urged, focusing on state-run industries that were built up on his granddad’s watch in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Those industries declined to almost nothing over ensuing decades as the communist system hit its limits under the rule of his father. Kim Jong-il by the 1990s was presiding over a deadly famine and general economic collapse.
The New Year’s speech this year seemed to be saying the country’s first economic task is to restore what had been built under the grandfather only to be lost under the father. Of course young Kim couldn’t come out and say that directly; it would be a huge no-no in a heavily Confucian-influenced society.
Kim Jong-un specifically mentioned the need for “the state” to “supply raw materials, fuel and power to the Kim Chaek and Hwanghae iron and steel complexes” and “revitalize production at the February 8 Vinalon Complex.”
Those giant metallurgical and chemical installations had first fallen into disrepair and then seen their equipment cannibalized as scrap metal by desperate local people during the 1990s hard times that are now code-named the “Arduous March.” It says much that the ruined facilities are still far from being restored.
Kim devoted a paragraph to the need to modernize and expand machine-building, especially tractor manufacture, which is another up-then-down example of the failure of the North Korean economy.
While visitors from abroad in the 1970s could see many farmers using tractors and other machinery, that mechanization trend was long since reversed to the point that the more common sight from the ‘90s became humans engaged again in backbreaking farm labor.
What about consumer goods? For these items, North Koreans since the 1990s have relied on private traders with access to imports who operate in more or less officially tolerated markets.
As usual with official pronouncements there is no mention of those markets. Necessary as they are to the population’s survival, they still do not fit in with the ruling ideology.
Just as Kim dictators before him were wont to do, Kim Jong-un spoke as if solutions to the scarcity of consumer durables and food would be forthcoming from the state: “This year light industry, agriculture and fishing industry should be radically developed to make greater progress in improving the people’s living standards.”
Close readers of the speech cannot help noting that Kim said nothing about modest economic reform policies that are supposed to have been in effect for several years. One can only assume those are not terribly important to Kim Jong-un.
One startling departure from his father’s and grandfather’s proclamations did come when Kim seemed to apologize for the fact that after five years in office he has not yet managed to bring the country back to the peak levels Kim Il-sung had achieved.
That failure is quite understandable as long as Kim insists on working with a system that basically predates the fall of communism. Today neither Russia nor China is prepared to provide the sort of massive aid that used to underpin what progress North Korea was able to make.
Never mind. Rather than moving the country into reform and opening in the style of China’s post-Mao leader Deng Xiaoping, Kim offered this assurance:
“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.”
And then, having finally harked back to his predecessors by name, he does so again in mentioning ideologies associated with them: “As long as the great Kimilungism-Kimjongilism is illuminating the road ahead of us and we have the single-hearted unity of all the service personnel and people around the Party, we are sure to emerge victorious.”
So much for Kim’s vaunted byungjin policy of parallel development of the economy and nuclear weapons. So far he’s betting not on economic reform but on the nukes, overwhelmingly.