2018 has been an enormous year for North Korea watchers. Reading my own thoughts on past year’s New Year Address gives a sense of the fear that pervaded the globe in late 2017, but it appears I failed to pick up on the hint of something new in Kim Jong Un’s words last January. This connective possibility would blossom into a huge burst of theatrics around the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the meetings of Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un and in the extraordinary moment of the Singapore Summit. Little of course has been agreed between the United States and North Korea of practical use since and the US Presidency is mired in a destructive, chaotic schizophrenia in the run up to the 2020 election so it is unclear as to whether the Trumpian gaze or a moment of lucidity and focus will once again settle upon the peninsula before then. While Mike Pompeo has been busy cleaning up the mess in POTUS’s wake and John Bolton has been energetically destabilising and unsettling the New World Order, the two Korea’s have been busy with both optics and practical organisation. A great deal of de-escalation was managed in 2018 between Seoul and Pyongyang on their own, and recent efforts to actually reconnect railway lines across the DMZ are testament to the industry of the two sides. Whether trains run in any useful or functional way north of Dorasan station in the future cannot yet be known, but even the temporary solution to practical issues which once seemed unsolvable is progress of sorts.
Kim Jong Un’s New Year Address for 2019 has some of these developments within it, as has much of North Korea’s messaging since the middle of 2018. The removal of the dangerous, negative energy from interactions between North Korea and the outside world in the last twelve months is certainly an achievement for all and Kim Jong Un’s words make some effort not to provoke, other than the expected and unavoidable proviso that if the United States doesn’t keep to its side of the post-Singapore bargain then Pyongyang will be ‘compelled to find a new way’ to defend its sovereignty. We all of course know what that new way is, it’s the old way, currently removed from the repertoire of possibilities, with no more pre-dawn images of Kim Jong Un sat at his desk, cigarette in hand as a projectile flies skywards. Still as final negotiations have not even been contemplated, let alone planned or begun, no doubt such possibilities are available if required. 2019’s New Year Address cannot be said to be effusive or friendly towards the great enemy, but it is at least optimistic in tone as Kim Jong Un wants ‘to believe’ that relations will ‘bear good fruit’ in the next 12 months. The address is more positive on relations with the South, with progress over the previous year framed as being very much a product of inter-Korean energies and any problems or disruptions emerging or deriving from external actors or agencies. Of particular interest on this point is what appears to be near sympathy for industrialists, entrepreneurs and investors in the Kaesong industrial complex and in the Mt Kumgang tourist area (both in their own ways products of Hyundai Asan), who have been subjected to ‘hard conditions.’ The Address suggests that North Korea is minded in 2019 to resume collaboration at both locations without preconditions, a statement which of course any North Korea watcher would treat with caution.
2019’s New Year Address does communicate using the conceptual frame of Byungjin, North Korea and Kim Jong Un amidst the complexities of 2018 having essentially failed to develop a coherent new theoretical line, but does so without one of its foundational parallels. Developmentally Kim Jong Un follows a classical and familiar set of priorities for North Korean watchers in 2019, though with a heavy emphasis on training and personnel development. Party institutions and organisations must function well, ideology and ideological development must be emphasised and streamlined, social organisations must play a role. There is space in the address for cultural and social development and creativity must not be forgotten, indeed “the sector of art and literature should create splendid works including films and songs that reflect the times and reality and touch the people’s heartstrings,” for this is seen as part of continually building a socialist civilisation.
The address does not forget the various developmental sectors this particular author is for the most part concerned with. Agriculture, Chemicals, Metallurgy, Light Industry, Heavy Industry, Transport and Railways and finally Fishing all receive a mention. Little is said on maritime matters this year following several years of more detailed focus, though stock breeding of various sorts and poultry farming and development receive more specific mentions. Larger construction projects such as those ongoing in Samjiyon County and the Kalma-Wonsan Coastal Tourist Area are name checked, and these sorts of tourist infrastructures seems to be of real concern. While Samjiyon for the most part appears focused on domestic tourism and the requirements of North Korea’s ideological visits and study tours to Samjiyon and the Paektu area, Kalma-Wonsan appears a new category of ambition for North Korea. 2018’s UK TV broadcast for instance of ex Monty Python Michael Palin’s visit to Wonsan showed the city’s new airport terminal complete with a departure lounge whose signage was almost entirely in Chinese. While Air Koryo currently, as Palin encountered flies infrequently to Wonsan, North Korea’s ambitions for the area appear focused on providing tourists from Liaodong and the northeast of China a budget alternative to the beaches of Sanya and Hainan, rapidly becoming more expensive.
North Korea’s ambitious touristic dreams at Wonsan require a number of complicated and until now intractable problems to be solved, one of which of course is the current restrictive sanctions regime imposed upon Pyongyang, which is not mentioned at length in the New Year Address. However electricity and power generation certainly is at the forefront of Kim Jong Un’s thoughts in the address. While power generation in Pyongyang and its new gleaming sets of Singapore-style apartment buildings has developed in recent years following work on nearby hydroelectric plants, electricity provision has always and continues to be a problem for North Korea. Current restrictions on the amount of coal, gas and oil that can be legally be shipped to the nation under UNSC sanctions, whether they are mitigated at the edges by noncompliance, creativity and the needs of Chinese business will always present a problem. Nuclear energy would be one such solution, and this is mentioned in the New Years Address (though developing its nuclear energy capacity will no doubt prove a complicated point in any diplomatic negotiations in the future), however in tandem with calls within it to increase development in the metallurgical industry is a much more simple solution.
This solution however runs counter to a great deal of other priorities and ambitions in North Korea’s developmental mind, yet one which is currently in vogue across the Pacific with the administration in Washington DC. While Pyongyang has long sought to play a role in the UNFCCC process and increase its own resilience against the impact of climate change and environmental crises, it has seldom committed a great deal of its own energy, materiel or capital to engaging in that process (sending only three delegates to UNFCCC COP 24 in Katowice, Poland last December). This New Year Address however suggests that in the future North Korea will have similar problems to the current administrations in Warsaw and Canberra when it comes to energy choices. Just as Poland and Australia have governments captured by the coal industry and the imperatives of the carbon and fossil fuel industry, 2019’s New Year Address shows Pyongyang stuck in a developmental quandary, though in its case not through the lobbying of industrial and business interests. In tandem with its own often repeated and by now very familiar desires for self-reliance, for North Korea and Kim Jong Un, in 2019, the future is local natural and fuel resources, to offset at least some of the energy supply difficulties presented by the current sanctions system. For this years New Year Address, aside from other possibilities, and potentialities which given the events of 2018 appear far more positive than in past years, the future for North Korea is coal.