Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Speech

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Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Speech

While many made note of a recent speech by N. Korea’s leader, it maybe what Pyongyang wants to hear from S. Korea that might be of real interest.

An annual ritual of North Korea’s is the release of a lengthy propaganda statement on New Year’s Day that serves as guidance and provides a sense of priorities for the coming year.  Under Kim Jong-il, the statement came in the form of a joint New Year’s Day editorial by three leading news organs, but Kim Il-sung gave the speech himself.  Kim Jong-un does not appear to have the same fear of public speaking that his father apparently had, so he gave the speech, which was broadcast on North Korean television, and is available through YouTube (see below). Even though Kim is not afraid to read a speech in front of a camera, the echoing of the room, despite North Korean cutaways to a building accompanied by an applause track, suggests that Kim did not present the speech to a live audience. Curious.

The speech has been panned as a repetition of the same old, same old, here and here, while it was greeted in the South Korean media as potential evidence of North Korean openness to an olive branch from Seoul.  I see the speech as a reiteration of North Korea’s basic conditions for stabilizing the inter-Korean relationship with a conservative South Korean leader, namely, an insistence that “all the compatriots in the north, south and abroad should launch a dynamic struggle to carry out to the letter the June 15 Joint Declaration and October 4 Declaration, great reunification programs common to the nation in the new century and milestones for peace and prosperity.”

In the coming weeks, North Korea will carefully watch the Park Geun-hye transition team and the new administration’s initial articulation of policies toward the North.  The criteria by which the North is likely to judge whether it wants to do business with Park Geun-hye was revealed in a series of questions from a December 1st article entitled “Park Geun-hye’s Deceptive Commitments Regarding ‘Policy toward North’ Censured.”

The questions are as follows:

1. How is she going to keep promise made between the north and the south while shunning the joint declarations agreed by the top leaders of the two sides, and does she have the face to talk about "summit talks"?

2. How will she ensure "mutual respect" and achieve "trust" and "cooperative relations" while insisting on "unification based on liberal democratic order"?

3. Is the call for "scrapping nuclear program first" different from the watchwords of "no nukes, opening and 3,000 dollars"?

4. Does it stand to reason for her to talk about "peace" while crying out for beefing up deterrence and tightening alliance with foreign forces? Will she take the road of war in league with foreign forces or the road of lasting peace with fellow countrymen? 

5. Does she think it possible to put the north-south ties on normal track while resorting to anti-DPRK smear campaign such as "north Korean human rights act"?

6. Does she think it possible to have north-south dialogue and cooperation with "May 24 measure" left intact?

7. Does she have a true intent to break with the confrontation policy of the Lee Myung Bak group and opt for improving the north-south relations with sincere mind?

It is easy to imagine the answers North Korea wants to hear from President-elect Park, but it may be hard for Park to provide positive answers to all of these questions without defying articulated principles or alienating her conservative base.  Moreover, there are numerous opportunities for missteps, unintentional misunderstanding, or intentional distortions to derail the sort of atmosphere necessary to promote inter-Korean rapprochement.  Yet the stabilization of inter-Korean relations is arguably in the interests of both the North and South.  Whether that objective is achievable, only time will tell.

Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was previously a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.