by Jang Jin-sung




Kim Jong Un’s new year speech has broken a silence held for 19 years, for during this time, there was no new year speech in North Korea. Under Kim Il-sung, the new year’s speech was that occasion in the year when the leader provided guidance to his people. As all power is concentrated under the leader, the new year speech provided a framework and sets the tone for the coming year. Kim Il-sung made the speeches himself. After his death however, Kim Jong Il did not continue in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he chose to convey his message through editorials published by the important state mouthpieces such as Rodong Sinmun, the Korean People’s Army and the Youth Vanguard.

As the new year’s speech was by then perceived to be an inseparable limb of the leader, these state editorials assumed absolute legitimacy as if they had been uttered in a speech made by Kim Jong Il himself. From 1995 onwards, Party members had to study Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il’s teachings together with the state editorials and produce self-criticisms based on these materials.


The fact that Kim Jong Un delivered this new year’s message through a speech shows that he wants to associate his psychological authority with that of his grandfather Kim Il-sung rather than that of his father Kim Jong Il. Clearly, Kim Jong Un understands very well the ordinary North Korean’s mistrust of Kim Jong Il. This explains why he began his speech with the following shocking words: “Dear Comrades!”



In North Korea, the adjective ‘dear’ has been exclusively reserved for Kim Jong Il: while Kim Il Sung was ‘beloved and respected’, Kim Jong Il was ‘dear’. Yet in the new year speech Kim Jong Il’s personal adjective has been used to describe ‘comrades’. Two motives for this stand out. First, with no more ‘Dear Leader’, ‘Beloved and Respected Leader’ Kim Jong Un can have the limelight. Second, a ‘dear’ intimacy is being stressed as existing between the new leader and his comrades.


The new year speech plays even bolder linguistic games than the displacement of adjectives – it includes new phrases never uttered before. The country is described as ‘Mt. Baekdu Great Nation’ and by extension, the army is called ‘Mt. Baekdu Revolutionary Strong Army’. These neologisms too are associated with Kim Il-sung, because Mt. Baekdu is at the center of the Kim Il-sung revolutionary tradition. The omission of a certain word is also very conspicuous. While Kim Jong Il stressed his country as a ‘Strong and Prosperous Great Nation’, the ‘great’ has now been dropped and the country has become a ‘Strong and Prosperous Nation’.


Kim Jong Il stated that the essence of a ‘Strong and Prosperous Great Nation’ was a free-standing economy rooted in a great ideology and a great military. Nevertheless, ordinary North Koreans have mocked the fact such an impoverished nation was always prefixed by ‘great’. This kind of thinking was even accompanied by a mistrust of the competence of Kim Jong Il’s regime. With Kim Jong Un’s new year speech omitting the word ‘great’ from the list of descriptors, it is re-establishing itself as a ‘strong’ nation. To replace ‘great’, new phrases such as ‘Socialist Strong and Prosperous Nation’ and ‘World’s Number One Strong Nation’ have been employed to convey some sense of inclusion in the world around them.


The sense of a hopeful nation re-establishing itself ideologically can be seen too in the new terminology used to describe policy. It is surprising that the phrase ‘accurate guidance’ appears in Kim Jong Un’s speech. In North Korea, ‘guidance’ is a synonym of ‘greatness’. For a country ruled by a hereditary dictatorship, the fact that ‘guidance’ has become ‘accurate guidance’ is a linguistic innovation of significant revolutionary import. That ‘guidance’ is now being referred to as ‘accurate guidance’ is yet another indicator that the new leadership has acknowledged the people’s disgruntlement with the failures of Kim Jong Il’s rule.


(Part 2 published tomorrow: what kind of change, if any, is signaled in Kim Jong Un’s new year speech?)


Jang Jin-sung is North Korea’s former poet laureate under Kim Jong Il, and is now Editor-in-chief of New Focus International.