2017 will be famous for a lot of things, Robert Mugabe’s unexpectedly peaceful retreat from power in Zimbabwe, the conflagration at Grenfell Tower, Harvey Weinstein’s metamorphosis into an American Jimmy Saville, hurricanes in North and Central America, the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar/Bangladesh and a whole lot of covfefe. The C word will no matter how much social media twitterers demand it, never really be a word, but if it is a bastardisation of kerfuffle then Washington’s current Commander in Chief will have gifted the planet a useful term for describing North Korea and North Korean watchers year. 2017 was certainly something of a covfefe. This author has been watching Pyongyang and its various landscapes and terrains for a few years now, but never felt the energy of commentary and geo-political potential reach quite the level of urgency of the past twelve months. As much as external hyperbole and anxiety has not helped the situation, neither has North Korea’s equally unexpected success in the development of its intercontinental ballistic missile technology and nuclear capacity. A few years ago I was guilty of prevarication on the issue of Pyongyang’s capacity so far as O-rings and metal tooling were concerned; no more. Pyongyang’s notion of Byungjin was hard to pin down at first, but no matter how obtuse or opaque, or even how neglectful of the second element in its equation (economic development and growth), North Korean parallelism has gone heavy on the side of capability.
In the days leading up to the end of the old year and the start of the new, this Pyongyang watcher, as all tasked in life with a similar or allied occupation do, pondered where Kim Jong Un’s New Year Address for 2018 would take us in the coming twelve months. Would 2018 bring us a complex weaving of charismatic energies and commemorative moments, something outlandish and unexpected or an outburst of new sloganeering generated by never heard of before conferences in Pyongyang (late Decembers’ 5th WPK Cells Chairpersons Conference was a case in point)? Might Kim Jong Un even pin the text around the celebrations and political heat of 2018’s 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong Suk, his grandmother and a powerful satellite to North Korea’s tryptic of Paektusan Generals?
While I will consider the potential impact on North Korea’s developmental agenda, environmental terrain and constructed natures later in this piece, I cannot let what is essentially the news story for the wider world in the New Year Address pass entirely unremarked. No doubt commentators of the hawkish persuasion will declare Kim Jong Un’s words an attempt to create a little fracture in the Seoul-Washington DC security-military axis and that may be true. It is also true that South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in did not run for office to arrive at the nuclear impasse with North Korea, dependant on the most conservative and chaotic US administration yet seen and the most nationalist Japanese government since the Showa period. The speed that the Moon government has picked up the baton from Kim Jong Un should not be surprising. The final section of the New Year Address pirouette to matters of PyeongChang is however fairly extraordinary in tone. It would have stretched the imagination a little to predict the words: “I sincerely wish that in this significant year everything would go well both in the north and in the south.” While the prospect of Kangyye born participants for the skeleton or snowboarders trained in radical halfpipe at Masik Pass may evaporate in the heat of disappointment at the impending meeting at Panmunjom, the sheer possibility that North Korea might participate at the 2018 Winter Olympics generates a gap of a couple of months in which war (either conventional or nuclear) is impractical and the world just might be able to talk about something else and tone down the histrionics.
Beyond or outside the efforts at some sort of curve ball (perhaps triple axle would be more appropriate), rapprochement the spirit of Byungjin’s nuclear ambitions is present and correct. Kim Jong Un uses the recent 8th Conference of the Munitions Industry to call for the manufacturing of “powerful strategic weapons and military hardware of our style” and the mass production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. Such ambitions and intentions are not surprising given Pyongyang’s success in 2017 and feels a little incongruous given the message of the final section of the address. This incongruity dissipates a little if the reader holds Kim’s framing of the potential use and need for these weapons as not actually focused on Seoul and the south at all, but a ‘mutual’ enemy across the Pacific, the root in Pyongyang’s institutional mind of all difficulty so far as Korean unification and cooperation is concerned (it is hard to read the Myers thesis of violent unification in this text, but I am always ready to stand corrected).
Readers of other writing by this author by now will be wondering where is the topography or terrain in 2018’s New Year Address. Beyond unlikely landscapes of peace and friendship on the snowfields, or unwanted spaces of devastation following nuclear exchanges, Kim Jong Un reiterates a huge number of the agricultural and developmental projects familiar to readers of past addresses. While North Korean agricultural, aquacultural or maritime products are since UNSC 2397 entirely prohibited and sanctioned, the era of ‘great fish hauls’ does not appear to be over for Pyongyang. Neither are the efforts of shock brigades and other institutional and party units on vegetable, mushroom or livestock production forgotten. In common with innumerable statements, requests, demands, even pleas from both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, 2018’s New Years’ Address is replete with desires to “enhance our ship building and repair capacities” and “properly protect and manage the forests that have already been created.” Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung’s Works are equally replete with political efforts to both develop the building of deep sea fishing boats and manage the north’s forests, energies which in the end are never entirely fulfilled in North Korea. Since Wonsan and Chongjin’s fishing fleets have remained similar in tonnage and scale since the 1960s and its forests (apart from the far north) have remained troubled and denuded for the last decades 2018’s New Year Address heralds a landscape quite familiar to the geographer of the peninsula, one of utopian desire and practical difficulty. Kim Jong Un does not ultimately mention Kim Jong Suk’s 100th anniversary, but instead reminds the reader that 2018 is the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s declaration of independence, crystallising the division of the peninsula. In 2018 North Korea will have existed for 29 years longer than East Germany and 2 years longer than the Soviet Union, both governmental spaces similarly challenged by the vagaries of utopian ambition and energy. Perhaps those long years on the slab of progress are the unwritten message at the heart of this and every New Year Address from Pyongyang.