‘Desperate’ North will engage usAfter Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, issued his first new year’s message, “Announcement to all North Korean people on the occasion of the New Year,” in 1946, those New Year’s Day messages have been an annual event in North Korea. Before the death of Kim Il Sung, they were messages of hope to the people, delivered by the Great Leader live on the achievements of the past year and plans for the new one.
So on New Year’s Day, North Koreans used to gather in front of radios or later, televisions, to participate in the “sacred ceremony” of listening to the leader’s message.
After his death, the live New Year message was replaced by a joint editorial of three newspapers, the organs of the North Korean Workers’ Party, the People’s Army and the Youth Vanguard.
That pattern was set only in 1995, but the nature of the message, the “message of hope,” was not changed at all.
But this year’s message has changed; it is gloomy rather than hopeful. Although the title, “With the high spirit of triumph, let’s open the golden days of the military-first Korea,” is colorful, in the text there are paragraphs that frankly admit the poor living conditions of today and give no hope for improvements in the near future. The text also confesses that there are no special means available to solve the many problems facing the isolated nation.
The joint editorial this year highlighted “economic revival” as the most urgent task North Korea is now facing. Departing from the traditional rhetoric of mentioning political ideology first and then going on to military affairs and the national economy, this year’s message referred to the economy first, which is unusual. Especially, this is the first time that the expression “economic development is our desperate need” has been found in a joint editorial since they were first published in 1995.
Unlike in the past, there is no detailed explanation of last year’s economic achievements. To the contrary, the editorial admitted that the economic difficulties, including food shortages, have persisted until now. The editorial says that North Korea has endured “its worst difficulties in the past 10 years” and has to solve the problem of feeding people “as it did in the past.”
That means that the North Korean economy is in very serious difficulty. Actually, there is a possibility that the North’s economy might have have had negative growth last year for the first time in seven years. Inflation is worse than ever, and the juche, or self-reliant, economy has rather crumbled into a U.S. dollar-reliant economy. The economy has deteriorated to the state where most North Korean residents cannot survive if they don’t engage in some sort of business. The focus of economic policy this year is on the improvement of people’s lives. It is unusual for North Korea, but the editorial frankly admitted that North Korea is “in desperate need” of consumer goods and even declared that the improvement of people’s lives was the “ultimate principle” that the North Korean authorities should work on attaining.
But the North Korean authorities have failed to present any practical strategies except the slogan of self-reliant economic revival. Since the beginning of the 2000s, the slogan “self-reliant revival” had disappeared, but it became the key word of the joint editorial. The editorial of the Rodong Shinmun, the organ of the North Korean Workers’ Party, even explained in its Jan. 8 issue that the spirit of this year’s joint editorial could be summed up as “building an economically strong nation and achieving self-reliant economic revival.” It is a message that “everybody should find their own way of living,” since it is not possible for the government to provide assistance to solve the many economic difficulties. But how can North Koreans solve all the economic problems with their own hands if they are not living in a primitive agricultural society? Ultimately, the North Korean authorities will have no other choice but to rely on outside help. There is no alternative but to seek help from South Korea while the North exerts diplomatic efforts of its own to ease economic sanctions.
Therefore, there is a large probability that the resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem through U.S.-North Korea talks and the six-party talks will progress unexpectedly smoothly. The joint editorial’s intensity of criticism against the United States is considerably lower than in past editorials. The U.S. strategy of using both a stick, freezing North Korean accounts at Banco Delta Asia; and a carrot, the possibility of guaranteeing the security of the regime and giving economic aid, was effective.
In order to get economic aid, North Korea will also engage South Korea in talks, a good opportunity for us. I hope we can fix the problems in that cooperation, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where South Korean companies cannot employ or discharge North Koran workers by themselves or pay wages to workers directly, and rice aid to North Korea that is provided in the form of loans to avoid controversy over unreciprocated aid from Seoul.
*The writer is the head of North Korean Economy Research Team of the Korea Development Institute. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Jo Dong-ho