[Viewpoint] North’s editorial suspiciously friendly

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[Viewpoint] North’s editorial suspiciously friendly

The joint New Year’s editorial from North Korea is shady from the beginning. “Let us accomplish a decisive turnabout in people’s living standards by accelerating light industry and agriculture,” the headline reads. Since the annual editorial began in 1995, it has never had such a specific title, and this is the first time the title has addressed the economy.

In the past, Pyongyang always put an abstract political slogan as the title.

Last year’s was, “Let us make 2009 a glorious year of new revolutionary rise.” In 2008, the editorial was titled, “Let us make a glorious year of historical turnabouts.” However, this year’s editorial is focused on the specific and realistic economic issue of people’s living standards.

The phrase, “people’s living standards” appeared only once in last year’s joint editorial.

But this year, the same phrase is repeated 19 times. It suggests that North Koreans are desperately in distress.

Nevertheless, Pyongyang would not have emphasized this so much unless it was confident it could improve the situation.

In North Korea, the joint editorial is a document that has to be straightforward and frank. It is not for international propaganda but for domestic persuasion.

At the end of the year, North Koreans can confirm whether the objectives proposed in the joint editorial were accomplished. Progress toward the objectives is checked at workplaces throughout the year. Exaggeration is allowed to a certain degree in order to inspire hope and loyalty. But essentially, Pyongyang has to propose attainable goals based on a relatively accurate sense of reality.

In the difficult year of 1998, the joint editorial read, “Serious economic obstacles lie before us,” and 2000’s editorial read, “We are in a difficult economic situation.”

The joint editorial is also a piece that reflects the philosophy of Kim Jong-il, so the writers of the editorial must be careful not to make a liar out of the “general with extraordinary leadership.”

Especially this year, Kim Jong-il is thought to have been deeply involved in the drafting of the joint editorial. He probably decided on the title personally and edited the text as well.

No one but Kim himself can reverse his signature economic slogan of putting the defense industry first to emphasize light industry and agriculture. After all, this year’s joint editorial shows Kim Jong-il’s intentions 100 percent.

That’s what makes the editorial suspicious.

Last year’s harvest was not good, and economic sanctions still pressure North Korea. So how can Pyongyang improve the living standards of the people? What makes them declare, “Elevating people’s living standards is not economic and technical work but political work to carry on the teachings of the fatherly leader?”

How can Pyongyang be so unusually confident?

About 70 percent of that confidence must come from inside. Some have said the document lacks attacks on the South in anticipation of assistance, but I bet the North is not counting on it. North Korea can be very absurd, but it would not have designed an economic plan based on uncertain assistance from the South. Improving living standards is not a very challenging task, involving the resumption of rationing and providing additional volume.

Therefore, the reports on the successful “150 days of combat” and “100 days of combat” are not completely groundless. Moreover, the joint editorial’s claim that “the economy has entered an upturn in earnest” is not a total bluff. Albeit not solid yet, Pyongyang is confident that it has prepared some domestic foundations of its own.

But the North Korean authorities know that it is not enough. So China must be in charge of supplementing the rest. High-ranking Chinese officials have been frequenting North Korea since the second half of last year, and their priority must be economic assistance and cooperation. In return, Beijing will demand Pyongyang’s return to the six-party talks and improvement in inter-Korean relations. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao implied this was Beijing’s plan when he declared that he would make critical contributions to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula upon his arrival in Pyongyang in October 2009.

In the end, South Korea is a subordinate element, probably with about 10 percent influence. Seoul’s assistance will help if Pyongyang gets it. But even without the assistance, the North will be all right. Therefore, North Korea’s softened attitude does not mark submission to pressure or anticipation of assistance but a move to prevent the trouble that an aggravated inter-Korean relationship would bring.

While we were waiting around, Pyongyang has been moving on its own schedule and now is trying to “control” the inter-Korean relationship.

*The writer is a professor on North Korean affairs at Ewha Women’s University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Cho Dong-ho

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