Don’t pop the champagne yet

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Don’t pop the champagne yet

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un grabbed the world’s headlines with his surprise New Year’s Day address. The address was the first by a North Korean leader since Kim Il Sung’s New Year’s Day address in 1994, and appeared to offer a more conciliatory tone to the President-elect Park Geun-hye. Some analysts also saw hopeful signs in the North Korean leader’s pledge to “embark on an all-out struggle” to overhaul the North’s broken economy.

On closer examination, however, Kim Jong-un’s speech appeared to have more changes in style than content. The “Great General” said he wants to “remove confrontation” on the peninsula and called on antiunification forces in the South to desist from criticizing and pressuring his regime. The way forward, he argued, was to follow through on prior summit agreements. Did he mean the 1992 North-South Denuclearization Agreement, in which Pyongyang pledged not to pursue highly enriched uranium (HEU) programs? Almost certainly not, since the North has been cheating on that agreement for 15 years now and may be close to producing nuclear weapons from the HEU it is spinning in hidden centrifuge facilities.

What Kim Jong-un had in mind, it is clear, were the June 2000 summit with Kim Dae-jung in Pyongyang, which resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in unconditional cash for Pyongyang, and the August 2007 summit with Roh Moo-hyun at Kaesong, which promised hundreds of millions more, until Lee Myung-bak came to power and insisted on reciprocity from the North with respect to the nuclear program.

And economic reform? Kim Jong-un did play up economic issues in the speech, and dramatically called for the nation to “bring about a radical turn in the building of an economic giant with the same spirit” as the North’s recent rocket (ballistic missile) test. However, there were no hints of any actually plan to open or reform the economy. What Kim did promise was a “dynamic struggle” to boost production with measures to “improve economic management” and spread “lessons from various work units.” This is the same Stalinist rhetoric one heard in Moscow in the 1930s or Beijing during the Great Leap Forward .?.?. or North Korea at almost any point in the last six decades.

What then to make of Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Speech?

The most likely explanation is that we are seeing cosmetic changes to the economic and military policies Kim inherited from his father, Kim Jong-un. The younger Kim has attempted to be more outgoing than his reclusive father: showing off his attractive young wife and appearing in public events with more frequency. The regime has also intensified Kim Jong-un’s cult of personality by reviving images associated with Kim Il Sung, including the younger Kim’s haircut, his facial structure (which some have speculated was the result of plastic surgery), and photos on white horseback or in other heroic scenes evocative of the “Great Leader’s” propaganda of the 1950s and 60s. Kim Il Sung was known for broadcasting New Year’s Day addresses, and now Kim Jong-un will be as well.

A second possibility, not necessarily inconsistent with the first, is that Kim’s speech represents a tactical shift for short-term advantage. Pyongyang would have preferred that Moon Jae-in had won the presidential election, but the regime also recognizes that Park Geun-hye might pursue a softer line than her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak. Park has said she will resume small-scale humanitarian aid and some economic projects with the North. Resuming the Mount Kumgang tourism project or expanding the Kaesong Industrial project could bring in tens - perhaps hundreds - of millions of dollars a year of additional untied cash for the regime. The North will also need fertilizer in the months ahead, and may be setting the stage for a major request for food aid, particularly if they think they can get it as a down payment for a North-South Summit, something Park has said in past she would like to do.

The North attacked Park Geun-hye in the past, but not since she was elected. At the same time, the regime probably recognizes that a Park government will stick to Lee Myung-bak’s demands for denuclearization, and thus any economic cooperation or assistance from Seoul will be limited and likely curtailed after the next North Korean nuclear test. Kim Jong-un never mentioned his nuclear program in the New Year’s speech, but it remains his major line of effort and the one area he is least likely to surrender.

The third possibility is one that should also be considered, but remains most unlikely: that Kim Jong-un is signaling a strategic shift in direction for his country. The nonconfrontational tone of the speech was noteworthy, if not unprecedented. And if Pyongyang continues focusing the nation on economic performance, the regime may have to deliver results.

In that sense, it is worth watching to see if there are any concrete examples of how Kim Jong-un will “bring about a radical turn” in the economy, beyond the Stalinist command economy rhetoric thus far. Even then, can South Korea or the United States assist North Korea in economic opening if that same regime is doubling down on its dangerous nuclear weapons proliferation? My guess is that this is not a dilemma we will have to confront, at least not judging from Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day speech.

*The author is a senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
By Michael J. Green
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