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North Korea

Pyongyang's New Year speech fails to impress

Kim Jong Un's televised address to North Korea spoke of the need for radical economic improvements and appeared to adopt a more conciliatory tone to the South. However, some experts are far from convinced.

Newspapers hailed terms within the speech such as "radical change" as unusual - perhaps indicative of a softening stance toward the South. The question of whether it represented a turning point was raised by numerous commentators.

From a style point of view, the format of the speech was a distinct novelty. It was the first to be read by a North Korean leader since the final one delivered by his grandfather Kim Il Sung the year he died in 1994. Kim Jong Il delivered his messages as editorials in state newspapers.

Familiar statements

However, while some hailed Kim Jong Un's televised address as a sign of the young new leader preparing to set the country on a new course, some experts found that the substance had a familiar ring to it.

 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks on podium in Pyongyang, (Foto:KRT via AP Video/AP/dapd) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT

North Korea's Kim Jong Un speaks of 'radical' economic reform

Hints at "radical change" or "radical turnabout" as well as the prospect of reunification of the Korean peninsula are a regular feature of Northern propaganda, according to Rüdiger Frank, a professor at the University of Vienna’s Institute of East Asian Studies.

"As far as the term 'radical change' is concerned, this is standard wording that can be found relatively frequently in North Korean propaganda publications," Frank told DW.

"What is meant by it is not a reform in the direction of a market economy - rather it is a fairly militant figure of speech in North Korea that is used very regularly. It simply refers to the need for greater efforts to achieve the existing established goals."

Media misinterpretation

Meanwhile, reunification - peaceful and without outside interference - has long been a desired aim of the North, Frank said.

"These comments are by no means new and this is certainly not a breakthrough," said Frank, who believes the media was too eager to interpret the leader’s words as indicative of reform.

"The Western media has seen better days than those in which this message could be seen as a great breakthrough."

While the new North Korean leader said he placed an emphasis on economic development, he also spoke of a need to end antagonism between the North and South.

North Koreans pay their respects. 
North's official KCNA news agency. REUTERS/KCNA (NORTH KOREA

No event in North Korea is complete without soliders

Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University saw nothing new in that message.

"Statements like that are routine," Foster-Carter told DW. "They are interwoven in North Korean discourse with quite militant threats."

Almost more important than the content of the speech, he added, was the audience it targets.

"There’s no mention that South Korea has a government that might be a counterpart or that it has a new president," he said. "This Northern rhetoric always bypasses the government and is addressed in a vague way to the people, which, in a sense, delegitimizes the South’s government."

For Foster-Carter, the repeated references to socialism, planning and science indicate that little is about to change, despite Kim speaking of the country as a potential "economic giant."

'Lack of know-how'

Such an ambition is not as unrealistic as it might sound. Half a century ago, it was the North, bolstered by resources from the rest of the Communist world, that was the greatest industrial power on the peninsula.

Professor Rüdiger Frank, Quelle: Professor Rüdiger Frank

Professor Rüdiger Frank believes Kim's remarks are nothing new

"The problem is (Kim Jong Un) doesn’t show any awareness as far as I can see of how that might actually be done," said Foster-Carter.

"There’s no mention of reform here. Needless to say, it's all about everybody applying science and working harder and emulating the feat of those who launched the rocket."

There is, however, one sliver of hope in Kim's speech as far as reform is concerned, Foster-Carter. It concerns a passage stating that Pyongyang aims to "generalize on an extensive scale the good experience gained at several units." Foster-Carter believes the statement could refer to an expansion of market-based farming reforms.

"I clutch at that straw," he said. "If you’re going to start changing things, you do so cautiously," he said.

DW.DE