[Viewpoint] Reading between Kim Jong-un’s lines

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[Viewpoint] Reading between Kim Jong-un’s lines

To mark the beginning of the Kim Jong-un era, the young North Korean leader summoned the ghost of his grandfather Kim Il Sung to the Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang and planned a three-dimensioned display of might that included the Underworld, outer space and North Korea’s reality.

The itinerary on April 13 was supposed to go something like this: Just in time for the Supreme People’s Assembly’s designation of Kim Jong-un as the chairman of the National Defense Commission, a report was to be delivered to the assembly hall that the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite had entered the orbit. Then, the 5,000 assembly members would celebrate the successful beginning of a strong and prosperous era with roaring applause and approbation.

To keep up with the schedule, the launch time was set based on a political agenda, not a scientific one. Less than two minutes after the launch, the ballistic missile loaded with the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite exploded in the air and fell into the Yellow Sea. It was a spectacular failure that sent the North Korean regime crashing along with its space program.

But the biggest surprise of all came after the explosion. Without much delay, the North Korean authorities acknowledged the failure. We all predicted that Pyongyang would publicize it as a success even if the project went awry, but the prediction was proven wrong.

The space show was planned to be the highlight of the celebration of Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday. While it ended in a fiasco, chaos was rarely spotted in the aftermath.

Kim Jong-un held his composure and calmly went up to the podium for a formal military inspection. He then gave his first public speech. According to University of Georgia Professor Park Han-shik, an expert in North Korean affairs who attended the event, everyone at the military parade was surprised by the unannounced address.

The verbose 20-minute speech was full of elaborate and ornate words and phrases, but if you dissect each sentence, you can find notable expressions and significant messages.

Naturally, Kim Jong-un’s speech focused on the North’s “military-first” policy. He claimed that the army needs to take the lead in establishing a prosperous country and a powerful socialist state. The revolution should also be led by the military, he said.

The address vividly illustrated that the basis of the Kim Jong-un regime would remain a militaristic one. But the touted phrase “Strong and Prosperous Nation” was not mentioned at all.

For years, Pyongyang has been publicizing 2012 as the first year of the ascension of a “Strong and Prosperous Nation.” However, in the first address given by its new leader, the phrase was replaced with other terms. This nuance may signal a shift to a more realistic approach based on Kim Jong-un’s understanding of the serious challenges North Korea currently faces.

Kim Jong-un declared that the party is determined to make sure the people don’t have to tighten their belts and will help them enjoy the wealth and glory of socialism. He said that peace was the most precious element in order to attain the grand objectives of building a strong economy and improving the living standards of the people.

There was no mention of when people would be able to enjoy the wealth and glory, but emphasizing the need for peace for the improvement of quality of lives is significant amid a hard-line atmosphere epitomized by the missile launch and military-first revolution.

The most noteworthy message came toward the end of the address. He said he would collaborate with anyone who wishes for reunification, peace and prosperity. For reunification, he pledged to move forward with responsibility and patience.

Were Kim Jong-un’s words just another chapter of the endless North Korean rhetoric?

Lately, the North has been pouring slanderous attacks on the South and clearly violated the UN Security Council resolution by firing an intercontinental ballistic missile, dissolving an agreement made with the United States earlier in the year. His pledge to hold hands for reunification and the prosperity of the people sounds dubious and contradictory.

However, Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun’s April 15 issue had a relevant point in connection with the message of appeasement in Kim Jong-un’s address. The newspaper reported that in January, Kim Jong-un ordered party executives to seek economic construction plans that suit North Korea’s circumstances through discussion. He said that when it comes to economic management, the economists should not be criticized for being capitalistic. In a similar context, Premier Choe Yong-rim said in a briefing to the Supreme People’s Assembly on April 13 that economic and technological cooperation with other countries would be reinforced.

Compared to the North’s reaction following the UN Security Council’s statement of condemnation in April 2009, North Korea’s foreign ministry is noticeably calm and reserved. In 2009, Pyongyang criticized the UN statement as a declaration of war against North Korea and threatened to take measures of self-defense such as nuclear and long-range missile tests.

This time, however, the response has been limited to scrapping the Feb. 29 agreement with the United States.

Putting together Kim Jong-un’s softened tone in his speech, the Mainichi Shimbun’s report, the foreign ministry’s reservation and the prompt decision to acknowledge the failure of the satellite launch, Kim Jong-un has already emerged as a noticeably different leader compared to his father and grandfather.

We need to respond to Pyongyang’s reckless threats by all means possible. But at the same time, we need to figure out how to utilize Kim’s remarks.

* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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