People should come first

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People should come first

New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s taking of power is ostensibly going smoothly. The state’s Rodong Shinmun began to call him “our supreme commander” in a Saturday editorial one week after his father Kim Jong-il’s sudden death, hinting that Kim Jong-un will soon be promoted to the highest post in the North. The newspaper has also praised the young son for his “sternly having defeated imperialist reactionaries.”

These movements are in sharp contrast to Pyongyang’s timid response to Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 when Kim Jong-il chose to govern the country through the memory of his father for three years after his death. This means Pyongyang was well prepared for a peaceful power succession since Kim Jong-il suffered a heart attack in 2008, raising the possibility that Kim Jong-un’s new regime will settle down soon, particularly given that the international community wants it to be stabilized as soon as possible.

But wishes can hardly guarantee the stability of the new regime. As its state-run media indicated in their New Year’s editorials this and last year, North Korea cannot aspire to join the ranks of powerful and prosperous nations “without improving ordinary citizens’ living standards.”

In fact, North Korea’s overemphasis on the importance of Kim Jong-il’s “military first” policy is contradictory. Despite its urgent need to fill the power vacuum left by Kim Jong-il’s death, and its leaders’ conviction that they can avoid the fate of the collapsed communist regimes in East Europe with its “military first” policy, Pyongyang must understand that it can’t enhance people’s lives when its resources are monopolized by the defense sector.

In a New Year’s address in January, Pyongyang again stressed the urgent need to develop light industry as evidenced by the title, “Let’s make a decisive turning point in our striving for improving people’s livelihoods and construct a powerful nation by facilitating development of light industry.” The North’s economic plight can be illustrated by the fact that the regime, in its New Year’s address, used the words “military first” 32 times in 2009, which decreased to 15 in 2010 and to 14 this year.

The new regime must return to the spirit of the New Year’s address if it really wants to stabilize the country. No doubt South Korea can help ease their economic pain. We hope Pyongyang will demonstrate a maturity toward our president’s willingness to improve ties, instead of attempting to shake down the South.
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