North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un first surprised the world with a televised new year speech and then spoke of "radical change." But North Korean expert Rüdiger Frank warns of reading too much into the message.
DW: For the first time in nearly two decades, a North Korean head of state directly addressed his people in a New Year speech and spoke of "radical change" in the government's policy. If that weren't enough, Kim Jong Un mentioned reconciliation with the South, even using the word "reunification." How should we interpret all this?
Rüdiger Frank: I searched the Internet and within 10 seconds found an article published in 2011 in which Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong II, demanded a "radical change in improving people's living standards." And on December 8, 2012, the communist party newspaper Rodong Sinmum wrote: "What North and South Korea need is not any saber-rattling but rather dialog and cooperation to improve relations." So against this background, Kim Jong Un's statements aren't anything new and certainly represent no breakthrough.
So what should we make of Kim's speech?
It's the official position of the North Korean government, which gives reunification the top priority. And it's an official government position to pursue reunification in a peaceful way and to keep it an inner-Korean affair. In other words, the United States should not intervene. The speech echoed principles also proclaimed by Kim II Sung, who was Kim Jong Un's grandfather. It's up to observers to decide how seriously the New Year speech should be taken in light of the current events on the Korean peninsula. The term "radical change" is often used in North Korean propaganda. This isn't about market reform; it's part of the extremely militant language that is frequently used. Simply put, it's about taking even greater strides to achieve set goals.
Kim's New Year speech found a very loud echo in the Western media. News agencies spoke of a "new era." What's your take on this coverage?
I have to admit, with all due respect, that this is a sorry example of Western news reporting. North Korean experts refer to it as the "Columbus effect." The term applies to people - I'm insinuating now - who read a prepared North Korean speech for the first time and then interpret it in the context of how North Korea is typically viewed. If you want to have a solid understanding of such speeches, you need to regularly read government statements. Then you'll know what is really new and what isn't. I think the Western media has really seen better days than the one on which it touted this speech as a major breakthrough.
How does the relatively soft tone in the choice of words go along with the military saber-rattling that has continued unabated since Kim Jong Un's appointment?
North Koreamakes a clear distinction between the national task of reunification and the South Korean government, which North Koreans believe has been suppressing its people for the past five years. Of course, the North Koreans are happy about the new president (Park Geun-hye), even though they don't know what to make of her. That's why they've restrained from criticism so far. North Korean propaganda has always made a distinction between South Korea's leaders and its people. So there's no contradiction on that front. The North rattles its sabers at the South's leadership, while hugging its brothers and sisters on the other side of the border.
Now that South Korea has a new president, do you see an opportunity for the political situation on the Korean peninsula to cool down?
Well, if you're already at a low spot, it easy to sink further still. The past five years were not particularly rosy for inner-Korean relations. The South Korean government has pursued a relatively hard line, banking on the principle of reciprocity, which hasn't worked. Much of the hard-fought progress of recent years has stalled or disappeared completely. The new South Korean president is slipping into shoes that aren't too big and can be easily filled. And her chances of succeeding are relatively high. There isn't much more to be said at this point. I clearly remember how we speculated five years ago whether the new South Korean President Lee Myung-bak would approach the North. We were all relatively optimistic at the beginning, only to be quite shocked by the actual developments. So I'm skeptical. That said, the current level of relations is so low that an improvement won't be too difficult.
Rüdiger Frank is a professor at the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of Vienna.