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Kim Jong Un talks leadership responsibility in New Year's Address

Kim Ga Young; Bae Min Kwon, intern  |  2017-01-04 09:11
Kim Jong Un expressed some degree of regret in his 2017 New Year's address. The move is being interpreted as an attempt to strengthen his image as a 'people's leader' rather than the usual approach of deifying the Suryong, or Supreme Leader, in order to counteract worsening public sentiment over the regimes use of fearpolitik and a dearth of tangible economic improvements.

Towards the end of the January 1 New Years Address broadcast on Korean Central Television Kim Jong Un appealed to the public expressing remorse and acknowledging that his abilities fell short of his plans for the people, vowing to double down on his efforts and devote himself entirely to the people.

It is unusual for the supreme leader of North Korea to acknowledge shortcomings in such a public way and pledge to seek improvement. From his first New Years address in 2013, Kim Jong Un has habitually focused on giving the general public instructions regarding national tasks they must undertake in the coming year.

Kim Jong Un's remorseful attitude and deep bowing is far from North Korea's traditional idolization strategy, deifying the supreme leader as the 'Suryong.'

Analysts note that Kim Jong Uns adoption of the unprecedented demeanor is likely aimed at building internal support, as he is aware of the rising negative public sentiment toward the regime.

Lee Soo Seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS) told Daily NK that, "It is quite unusual for the supreme leader to point out his own deficiency in North Korea's Suryong absolutism system. He seems to have tried to show remorse after failing to improve the economy despite his efforts."

"Expressions such as 'remorse' and 'insufficient ability' have never been seen in a North Korean leader's New Year's address before. But this is also a part of the propaganda strategy of image politics. He is trying to show that he is caring for people's livelihoods as a leader," Lee explained.

Oh Gyeong Sub, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification further added, "The fact that he used words like 'remorse' reflects how much public sentiment has turned against the regime. Kim Jong Un's remorseful attitude must be interpreted as a pacifying effort rather than a sincere apology."  

There is also the viewpoint that Kim Jong Un chose the strategy because he can no longer blame the outside world for the economic crisis and worsening foreign relations, as the people of North Korea have become more informed through external information. 

Jeon Hyun Joon, Director of the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Institute told Daily NK, "North Korea has been blaming the US for everything, arguing that their hands are tied because of sanctions and external pressure. But this time, the regime chose a strategy to emphasize the 'Suryong's responsibility,' showing that Kim Jong Un himself has acknowledged the fact that people no longer believe the claims about South Korea and the US being solely responsible for the state of affairs."

However, it remains unclear to what extent the new approach will have an impact on imbuing loyalty from the people. Some point out that the 'political display' of lowering the supreme leader to the same level as the people can actually foster the realization that 'the leader is just a human being like us.'

"Kim Jong Un must have contemplated whether the remarks would ruin his authority or help promote his image to the people before delivering the New Year's address. But he seems to have realized that deceiving people is no longer effective, as North Korea is not completely closed anymore due to the influx of external information," Jeon noted.

One North Korea analyst told Daily NK on condition of anonymity that, "The deification of the supreme leader in North Korea stopped working properly due to the progress of marketization. As a result, Kim Jong Un took an alternative propaganda approach to show that he is a 'generous leader who can apologize to the people' at the start of his sixth year at the helm, but it is unlikely to have a significant effect on people who already well informed." 

"The leader may have hung his head, but it is likely that the regime will start to oppress and control people with more rigor. In other words, it might be better to interpret North Korea's New Year's address in reverse.

*Translated by Yejie Kim
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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