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DONG Yong-Sueng

North Korea in 2005

DONG Yong-Sueng

Feb. 18, 2005

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On January 1, North Korea's official media released a joint editorial setting forth the regime's major policy line for 2005. Under the long heading - "Let the whole party, army and people unite as one in mind, and more strikingly demonstrate the power of the army first policy"- it contained the views of the ruling (North) Korean Worker's Party, the Korean People's Army (KPA), and Socialist Youth League. Since the 1994 death of North Korea's state founder Kim Il Sung, it has been the tradition of these three major power centers of the North to issue a collective statement at the beginning of the new year.

The late Kim used to deliver the New Year speech when he ruled the country. Now, even though the joint editorial is less significant than the New Year's speech by the founder himself, it still is the most important source for indicating North Korea's policy. This year's joint editorial, when compared to past proclamations, was notable for taking a "defensive stance" on a number of issues. When the North took an offensive line, the joint editorial would include a militant phrase such as "Let's bring glory to the Fatherland, etc." This year's editorial continually emphasized the "army first" policy.

Politics

This is the tenth anniversary of the declaration of Kim Jong Il's army first policy, and the joint editorial uses this term 41 times to reaffirm his policy line. This policy of placing the army (actually the entire military) at the head of North Korean society started on January 1, 1995, when Kim Jong-Il visited KPA's 214th unit. It was adopted to overcome internal and external difficulties by demanding the loyalty of the armed forces to the Great Leader.

Reiteration of such policy this year underlines the fact that the North is placing the regime security at the forefront of concern. This is indicated by the fact that the joint editorial calls for "fighting to the death to safeguard the leader of the revolution, the core of single-heartedness and unity." The term "the leader of the revolution" in this case refers to Kim Jong Il.

The editorial also betrayed concern over the rising number of North Korean defectors to China and elsewhere following the economic difficulties. The editorial lashed out, "We do not allow crafty maneuvers and plots by imperialists to deal a blow to our ideology and culture. Nor do we allow rebellious behavior and a bourgeois way of life to penetrate (North Korean) society." The posturing betrays the regime's concern over the control of the country. In July 2004, 468 North Korean defectors arrived in South Korea after hiding for a time in Vietnam; and the US House of Representatives subsequently passed the North Korea Human Rights Act. These developments have touched a raw nerve in North Korea, which regarded these two events as the beginning of a joint campaign by the US and South Korea to destabilize the regime. This is why the North hesitates to resume bilateral talks with the South.

Economy

Over the last ten years, the New Year's editorial has consistently emphasized the importance of electricity, coal, steel, condition of the railway, and distribution. This year, however, it places significance on the agricultural sector. It stresses the need for boosting agricultural production and more people having management mindsets. The editorial encouraged officials in the agricultural sector to support farmers by providing more access to farming machines. It calls for introduction of advanced farming methods, provision of more fertilizers, insecticides, and high yield crop varieties.

The emphasis on agriculture may mean two different things. One potential explanation is the North is becoming more confident in its agricultural capabilities. Recently, the situation has improved dramatically in the rice belt on the west coast. Completion of a 160km-long waterway from Gaecheon to Taseongho provides more irrigation to the area. Another waterway connecting Baekma with Cheolsan is slated for completion in 2005. The land consolidation project, which began in 1998, is expected to boost production. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimated that North Korea produced 4.24 million tons of cereal in 2004, the biggest crop in ten years.

Conversely, the focus on agriculture could indicate a new food shortage. The North has depended on foreign food aid to feed a third of its populace, but international aid has decreased considerably in the midst of uproar over the nuclear standoff and kidnapping of Japanese citizens. The international food aid is expected to dwindle further as the regime fails to resolve these problems. That leaves it calling for more production to make up for the shortage.

Inter-Korean Relations

In the past, North Korea has frequently talked of "cooperation between the North and South Korean people" and "unity of the Korean nation." This year, however, it mentions three areas where cooperation is required: national independence, peace and opposition to war, reunification and patriotism. It also sets forth the slogan "Let's advance holding high the flag of cooperation for national independence, cooperation for peace and cooperation for reunification and patriotism!" In spite of North Korea 's focus on peace and cooperation, it is expected to intensify efforts to disrupt South Korean society as never before. On top of all this, it is likely to start a political offensive against the South to weaken cooperation between the US and South Korea.

Against this background, two developments are likely to occur. First, the North will improve inter-Korean relations by supporting cooperation in the private sector. As the South is unlikely to agree to the North's demand for cooperation in the three areas mentioned above, the North does not have much incentive for holding official talks with the South. Indeed, it may reject the South's proposal for a second summit. Even if the two parties decided to resume dialogue, they are unlikely to agree on details for North-South cooperation. Yet, despite the impasse on the government level, there are still opportunities for cooperation in the private sector.

Secondly, the North may try to reduce its dependence on the South. Under President Kim Dae Jung's administration, the North tried to take advantage of his "Sunshine policy" by joining the international community. The North has since lowered its expectations with the administration of president Roh Moo Hyun. It has turned to China and Russia for assistance; Kim Jong Il's summit talks with China and Russia indicate that he is developing a strategic triangle between the three countries. Russia and China have not responded to this gesture. But behind the scenes, Kim evidently is seeking to strengthen his regime through cooperation with China and Russia, while undermining cooperation between the US , Japan and South Korea .

Nuclear Issue

The joint editorial this year avoids making any extreme statement on the nuclear weapons issue. There are no explicit declarations to "...enhance our nuclear deterrent force." The editorial deals with the nuclear issue twice, changing last year's references to "nuclear crisis" and "nuclear issue" with "nuclear war," as if to say that it already possesses nuclear weapons.

But this year, the North refrains from making provocative statements about the US. Last year, it insisted that it would oppose any "hard line" stance from the United States by taking an opposing "super hard line." Even though this year's editorial repeats old statements that the North will harden its policy if the US takes a hard-line stance, it carefully minimizes the use of extreme expressions. It mentions "US imperialism" three times, US forces two times, anti-American sentiment only once.

Given the focus on the army first policy, few expect any substantial change in the North's traditional position. It goes on accusing the United States of trying to "stifle the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)," continues to claim that the United States is the root cause of a potential nuclear war, and demands that US forces withdraw from South Korea.

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