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Kim Jong-il's New Years Speech and What it Means for South Korea's Denuclearization Policy

Photo credit: NBC News

International affairs on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia are complicated, mostly due to issues regarding North Korea's denuclearization. While there is hope for permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula through Kim Jong-un’s plan for "complete denuclearization" and the end of the war on the Korean Peninsula, there is skepticism that North Korea will not denuclearize. Rather, North Korea wants disarmament, but not denuclearization.

This issue brief aims to scope out the policy direction of the Kim Jong-un regime and the direction of South Korea's policy for North Korea through North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun.Rodong Sinmun's New Years address is one of the most authoritative and consistent sources of information related to North Korea available, presenting the North Korean leadership's external perceptions, inter-Korean relations and major policies. Thus, one can gauge the North Korean leadership's policy and direction through this address. Although this issue brief is focused on the Kim Jong-un regime, it also analyzes New Years messages from 1975 to 2018 in order to provide more accurate analyses through comparisons made between the Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung periods.

The methodology of this issue brief is content analysis. Content analysis is a precursor to systematic analysis using a predetermined "dictionary" to enhance the reliability of the analysis by reducing the probability that a researcher's personal feelings or bias will affect the analysis of the document. The dictionary is open to the public and helps other researchers to write a new dictionary in later periods of time.

This issue brief aims to analyze two points using this methodology. Firstly, the New Years message is divided into three areas: nuclear weapons, economic development, and ideologies. This issue brief will compare and analyze the frequency of keywords representing each subject. The frequency of usage will reflect policy priorities, which will allow us to look at the priorities of policies under the Kim Jong-un regime. Second, it will analyze the usefulness of nuclear weapons. Although there will be a combination of factors on North Korea's nuclear development, the content analysis reviews the relative usefulness of external (external military threats) and internal (national pride and military-first politics) factors.

The first graph shows the frequency of keywords related to "military" and "economic" ideology, as well as the percentage of military aspects in the overall topic in New Years message. From 1975 to 2000, economic-related issues outnumbered military-related issues, but from 2000 to 2010, military issues exceeded economic issues. This seems to be closely related to the previous Kim Jong-il regime’s military-first political drive. During the Kim Jong-il era, Kim Jong-il put the military at the forefront of efforts to rectify the tough domestic economic situation, called the "March of Trouble." After Kim Jong-un took power, references to military-first politics are gradually reduced, and instead the frequency with which the military and the economy are almost identical, and in line with Kim Jong-un's policy of Byung-jin. This cannot be interpreted as the military's importance waning, but it could be seen as a return to pre-party politics, and that North Korea's domestic situation has become more stable during than the Kim Jong-il era.

The second graph shows the link between nuclear weapons and self-reliant defense, self-esteem, and military-first politics. In the 1980s and 1990s, land-based defense and nuclear weapons development appear closely linked, but in the 2000s, military-first politics are strongly represented, and self-esteem is also an important topic. After 2010, self-defence becomes important again. The phenomenon is likely to be attributed to the increased possibility of a military clash due to poor U.S.-North Korea relations. Self-esteem continues to be a significant factor at the same time, but military-first politics does not appear to be an important factor during the Kim Jong-un era.

Although New Years messages state otherwise, there are reasons to be skeptical of North Korea's commitment to denuclearization. With that being said, North Korea's current efforts for "complete denuclearization" indicate some genuineness as drastic changes in policy have been made by Kim Jong-un. It is encouraging that after Kim Jong-un's inauguration, the military-first politics disappeared as a slogan, and at the same time, his expression of willingness for economic development increased. While achieving regime stability and economic development simultaneously would still be a major challenge for North Korean officials, the regime's commitment to economic development appears strong. The current Moon Jae-in administration’s “Moonshine Policy” is more effective and influential than the previous Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung administrations’ “Sunshine Policy.”

Of course, economic exchanges with North Korea will continue to be difficult. A wide range of economic exchanges are not possible due to U.N. economic sanctions, but it is necessary to consider and prepare for whichever kind of economic exchanges can be made in the future. This issue brief suggests that the future of inter-Korean economic exchanges should take a different approach from the Sunshine Policy of the past. Previous economic exchanges have changed significantly depending on the political position of each administration; this is a major issue for South and North Korea.

I propose that in South Korea, both conservatives and liberals (the ruling and opposition parties) must reach an agreement on economic policies toward North Korea in a fundamental level, and carry out economic exchanges. Through these agreements, South Korea's economic policy toward North Korea could help develop further inter-Korean relations in the future. In addition, not only should South Korea participate in economic exchanges with North Korea, but it should also create a standard for institutional mechanisms for various countries, to promote economic cooperation. This could not only lower the cost of South Korea investing in North Korea, but also prevent North Korea from sudden policy malaise and politically motivated attempts to use economic cooperation in advancing their motives. As such, international cooperation involving the formation of domestic agreements. A number of districts in inter-Korean relations are an important condition for North Korea to begin reforming, and for the South-North relationship to continue to develop.

Ryu Young-wook is a Researcher at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies

**** The views herein do not necessarily reflect the views of NKR and the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

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