Kim Jong Un’s annual New Year’s Day address is akin to the State of the Union for US Presidents.
It’s when the North Korean leader sets out his aims for the coming year, and this year it reaped almost instant results with the start of the first face-to-face talks with Seoul in almost two years.
But there was more to this year’s speech than the olive branch extended to South Korea.
The North Korean leader talked about factory jobs and coal. He talked about textiles and scientific research. He talked about domestic production of consumer goods. He even talked about green initiatives.
“We have created a mighty sword for defending peace, as desired by all our people who had to tighten their belts for long years,” said Kim.
“This great victory eloquently proves the validity and vitality of the Party’s line of simultaneously conducting economic construction and building up our nuclear forces and its idea of prioritizing science, and it is a great historic achievement that has opened up bright prospects for the building of a prosperous country and inspired our service personnel and people with confidence in sure victory.”
It’s not exactly “Make North Korea Great Again,” but it’s not wholly dissimilar either. In policy circles, Kim’s agenda is known as “byungjin,” a twofold strategy of investing in the economy and the nuclear program.
“The amazing thing that’s been hiding in the open is the North Korean game plan of byungjin,” said John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
According to Park, the North Korean regime under Kim has been very consistent in saying that its primary policy goal is the parallel pursuit of a nuclear deterrent for self-defense and the building of the economy.
To that end, Kim used the speech to call upon his rocket and nuclear industries to mass-produce the weapons that have already been successfully tested, while also pursuing economic advances, such as diversified energy sources.
Experts CNN spoke to believe Kim’s proclamations aren’t the wish-list of a delusional dictator, but rather a key set of priorities tallied by a calculating, pragmatic leader who plans to address the immediate challenges his country faces.
“Every year these speeches are primarily about the economic situation,” said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Relations in Seoul. Delury has listened to each of Kim’s speeches since the young leader took power in 2011.
“(But) Kim Jong Un is not pretending everything is groovy,” said Delury. “He’s consistently acknowledged hardship and that the economic situation should be better. And he’s publicly committed himself to improving the economy.”
Some of the proposals offered specific insight into the government’s evolving strategy, explained Rodger Baker, a vice president at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor.
Baker said in previous years, Kim had called for the construction of a national power grid in the electricity-starved country. This year, however, Kim said different provinces should develop localized power sources, which Baker believes is due to the dangers of having a single national grid in the event of war.
Analysts said Kim appeared to acknowledge the difficulty his country faces in the coming year due to the punitive sanctions passed by the United Nations in response to the countries nuclear and missile tests, especially those that target Pyongyang’s energy supply.
Midway through the speech, he offered his “noble respects” to the “heroic Korean people” who, despite the “difficult living conditions caused by life-threatening sanctions and blockade,” have “firmly trusted, absolutely supported and dynamically implemented our Party’s line of simultaneously promoting the two fronts.”
The latest round of sanctions passed by the United Nations Security Council in December were said to be the toughest yet, imposing tighter limits on the supply of all refined petroleum products to North Korea.
In addition, Kim’s talk of not wasting power and exploring hydroelectric and geothermal energy sources is likely borne more out of necessity than environmental concerns, Baker believes.
This view was shared by Duyeon Kim, a senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul. “His speech also seemed to be an implicit admission that sanctions appear to be working or he’s expecting them to bite,” said Kim.
But the North Korean leader’s speech also hinted at how he plans to ensure his country survives the crippling sanctions targeting Pyongyang’s oil imports.
“The electric-power industry should maintain and reinforce the self-supporting power generation bases, and direct a great deal of efforts to developing new power sources,” said Kim.
Coal has helped drive the North Korean economy for decades. The country’s reserves could last for decades – and could possibly be converted into gas to meet the country’s energy needs as its ability to import oil is slashed, according to Baker.
North Korea is believed to have already begun construction on coal gasification plants, but Kim’s lengthy set of detailed instructions in this year’s speech urging the country’s chemists to accelerate their research into synthetic gas chemistry will likely give the efforts renewed focus, in the hope they can overcome the challenges faced in perfecting the technology.
Stratfor’s Baker said this could be interpreted as the regime’s response to the sanctions, and particularly to China’s imposition of sanctions. “It’s a bit of thumbing its nose at the rest of the world to emphasize how silly sanctions are,” Baker said.
Despite hopes the youngest member of the Kim dynasty would be something of a economic reformer when he took power in 2011, Kim, who was educated in Switzerland, soon made it clear he was no friend of the West.
Any remaining hope of a nascent opening up, or the adoption of a more China-style economic model appeared to be firmly quashed in 2013, when in a New Year’s speech, Kim announced his specific intention to build up the country’s military might, further distancing himself – and his country – from the broader international community.
This was followed last year by Kim’s declaration that his country was close to testing a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Some scoffed at the prediction, or dismissed it entirely. But the end of 2017, Pyongyang had successfully test-fired three ICBMs. That success has some analysts concerned about Kim’s order to mass-produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the 2018 speech.
But the byungjin model calls for achievements in areas beyond the military, too, and Kim has shown a clear intention to begin that process. The question now is how much can he achieve, given such massive international constraints?
Speaking to CNN in December, Curtis Melvin, a senior fellow with the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said privately run pizza parlors, coffee shops, bars and gas stations have quietly mushroomed in Pyongyang under Kim’s watch.
According to Melvin, Kim’s government has allowed more entrepreneurial activity and encouraged limited competition between small private firms.
But so far, most of this appears to be concentrated in Pyongyang, beyond the confines of the capital economic growth has been dependent on large state-backed projects.
As ever, sanctions will continue to be the biggest roadblock when it comes to this type of reform.
But, conversely, sanctions also provide Kim with a useful excuse should things not go according to plan.
Sanctions offer a very effective rationale for why there are setbacks, said Park of Harvard’s Kennedy school. “They (sanctions) are a multipurpose variable or factor that the regime uses.”
CNN’s Steve George and Daniel Shane contributed reporting