During his 2018 New Year’s address, Kim Jong Un mentioned plans to ‘bring improvements to the lives of the people’ this year. Similar to last year’s address, he mentioned the goal in the context of building up the country’s industries – a point made repeatedly since the beginning of his rise to power 6 years ago.
These sorts of claims have been made by the Kim family dynasty since North Korea’s inception. In the first such address in 1946, Kim Il Sung declared to the people that they can expect real improvements in their lives through the freedoms afforded by the genuine democratic policies that he was planning. He promised they would soon be eating meat instead of rice porridge, and frequently repeated such promises in his next 48 New Year’s addresses until his death in 1994. The economy remains stunted to this day.
Kim Jong Il in his first address in 1995 stressed the important role the military will play in establishing a revolutionary economic strategy to improve the lives of the people. Despite repeating similar goals over the next 19 years, Kim Jong Il oversaw the country’s greatest famine and continued economic stagnation.
As a result, North Korean residents are not easily moved by New Year’s overtures to ‘improving the lives of the people,’ seeing the yearly address as proof of the ‘history of lies’ of the Kim family. We now take a closer look at the history of the New Year’s address under three generations of Kim family rule, as well as the opinions of some North Korean witnesses to history.
Kim Il Sung (1946-1994)
Kim Il Sung presented a total of 49 New Year’s addresses during his rule from 1946 to 1994. Throughout the early period of the Kim Il Sung era, the North Korean people generally listened to the address intently, as most were loyal to the regime and satisfied with the functioning ration distribution system and reliable monthly salaries. Even in tough economic times, people still lived in the hope of some day seeing their leader’s promises of meat on the table, silk clothing, and houses with tiled roofs.
Kim Ok (50s, defected in 2016, from North Pyongan Province): “Even if our work units did not make special arrangements around the speech, we still went home to wait for it to begin. We sat and watched with reverence, studying his words very carefully. We believed what he said, that life was only difficult because of America.”
But when the state distribution system collapsed in the 1990s, people began to doubt the credibility of the New Year’s address. Numerous defectors have testified that when listening to the speeches towards the end of Kim Il Sung’s life, they began to feel he was getting old and running out of energy.
In his final address in 1994, Kim Il Sung again repeated the empty claim, “We will establish a solid, self-reliant economy through our socialist way and guarantee a better life for the people.”
Kim Jong Il (1994-2011)
North Koreans awaited the 1995 New Year’s address of their new leader Kim Jong Il just months after the death of his father. Though the people had known since the 6th Congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea in 1980 that Kim Jong Il would succeed Kim Il Sung, they had not yet heard him give a speech like his father’s. They had only previously heard him utter a single sentence at a military parade in 1992, shouting into the microphone, “Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People’s Army!” The people hoped to hear him address the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, the growing food shortage, and perhaps announce reforms.
But Kim Jong Il would not give the speech in front of a microphone. Instead, his 1995 New Year’s address was printed in just 3 state newspapers: the Rodong Sinmun, Joson Inmingun (army newspaper), and Chongnyon Jonwi (‘Young Avant-Garde). He was criticized for lacking the confidence to come out and give the speech in person.
Park Mi Ok (50s, defected in 2015, from North Hamgyong Province): “Ordinary people and cadres alike began spreading negative rumors about Kim Jong Il after he only released a print version of his first New Year’s address. People began to say that he threw together a written address because he cannot speak Korean fluently, even saying that he’s not fit to be General.”
Lee Myeong Hui (50s, defected in 2017, from South Pyongan Province): “I heard from State Security cadres that Kim Jong Il decided to print the address because he was scared of people criticizing the sound of his voice.”
Kim Jong Il’s first address also stated, “We must increase the struggle to improve the lives of military members so that they may take on the role of building better living conditions for all people.” He was essentially dumping responsibility onto the poor military conscripts of the nation.
North Korean residents saw the 1995 address as nothing more than a formality, believing his passing of responsibility to military conscripts to be a sign of political weakness. Instead, people found confidence in the emerging street markets, a beacon of hope in the face of what they saw as the possibility of the entire system collapsing. From this point on, people began rejecting Kim and focusing on the markets.
Kim Jong Un (2011-present)
Kim Jong Un gave his first New Year’s address in 2013. He chose to mirror the style of his grandfather Kim Il Sung and gave the speech in person on state television. While he spent most of the speech staring down at the paper on his podium, the reaction from many ordinary North Koreans was surprisingly positive. However, this positive reception has dwindled over the years since.
A source in North Pyongan Province who spoke with Daily NK on January 1 said, “People were excited because Kim Jong Un’s voice was deep and resonant, similar to Kim Il Sung’s. We listened to his New Year’s address and gained hope when he said he was improving the lives of the people.” But things did not change. Kim Jong Un may have left the markets intact, but various new ‘taxes’ have been imposed under his rule. People soon began critiquing his New Year’s address as a lie, following a similar fate to his father and grandfather.
Kim Jong Un followed the pattern of promoting ‘improvements to the lives of the people.’ In his first address in 2013, he stressed economic development and improving the lives of citizens, saying, “The building of an economic giant is the most important task that comes to the fore in the present stage of building a thriving socialist country.” In 2014, he promised abundant harvests would lead to advanced development and better lives. In 2015, he said people’s lives would improve due to the foundation of a self-reliant economy. In 2016, he promoted domestic innovations in agriculture, animal husbandry, and seafood production. Then, in 2017, he emphasized groundbreaking achievements in light industry, agriculture, and fishing.
These days, with Kim’s obsession with nuclear development and the resulting heavy international sanctions, North Koreans have had little interest in the annual address. This is not helped by official policies forcing citizens to organize groups and view the address.
“I don’t believe in the speech, I am not interested. I don’t care about the contents of the address,” a source in South Pyongan Province said. “It’s just useless noise, and even cadres know it’s all a lie, though they won’t say it.”
The address tends to have the opposite effect of that intended, highlighting the discrepancies between regime propaganda and the reality of life on the ground. Similarly, propaganda pushed towards high school students in recent years saying that “the Marshal is so smart and talented that he can recite the New Year’s address by heart” has also only served to harm the deification of Kim Jong Un.
The source added that “this kind of propaganda, telling children that Kim is a god, doesn’t work on the brighter students. The magical effect of these brainwashing techniques is wearing off, and people are beginning to understand Kim Jong Un is ‘just another person like you and me.'”