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Making North Korea great again. How realistic are Kim’s ambitious new year plans?

The leader of North Korea spoke about factory and coal works. He talked about textiles and scientific research. He talked about the national production of consumer goods. He even spoke about ecological initiatives.

"We created a powerful sword to defend peace, as all our people who had to tighten their belts for long years wanted," said Kim

"This great victory eloquently demonstrates the validity and vitality of the line of the Party of simultaneously leading the economic construction and construction of our nuclear forces and their idea of ​​prioritizing science, and is a great historical achievement that has opened bright prospects for the construction of a prosperous country and inspired our personal service and people with confidence in the sure victory. "

It's not exactly "Making North Korea excellent again", but it's not entirely different either. In political circles, Kim's agenda is known as " byungjin," a double strategy of investing in the economy and the nuclear program.

"The amazing thing that has been hiding is the game of North Korea's byungjin plan," said John Park, director of the Korea Task Force at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

According to Park, the North Korean regime under Kim has been very consistent in saying that its main policy objective is the parallel pursuit of a nuclear deterrent for self-defense and the construction of the economy.

To that end, Kim used the speech to call on his nuclear and rocket industries to mass-produce the weapons that have already been successfully tested, while pursuing economic advances, as diversified sources of energy.

believe that Kim's proclamations are not the wish list of a delusional dictator, but rather a key set of priorities told by a calculating and pragmatic leader who plans to address the immediate challenges facing his country.

"Every year these speeches are mainly about the economic situation," said John Delury, a professor at the Graduate School of International Relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. Delury has listened to each of Kim's speeches since the young leader took office in 2011.

"(But) Kim Jong Un does not pretend that everything is wonderful," Delury said. "He has constantly acknowledged difficulties and that the economic situation should be better, and he has publicly committed himself to improving the economy."

Key clues

Some of the proposals offered a specific vision of the government's evolving strategy, explained Rodger Baker, a vice president at geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor.

Baker said in previous years, Kim had asked for the construction of a national electricity grid in the country without electricity. This year, however, Kim said that the different provinces should develop localized sources of energy, which Baker believes is due to the dangers of having a single national network in case of war.

Analysts said that Kim seemed to recognize the difficulty his country faces next year due to punitive sanctions approved by the United Nations in response to countries' nuclear and missile tests, especially those aimed at supplying energy of Pyongyang .

Halfway through the speech, he offered his "noble respects" to the "heroic Korean people" who, despite the "difficult living conditions caused by life-threatening sanctions and blockade," have "trusted firmly, absolutely supported. " and we dynamically implemented the line of our Party to simultaneously promote the two fronts. "

The last sanctions round approved by the UN Security Council in December was the hardest so far, imposing stricter limits the supply of all refined petroleum products to North Korea.

In addition, Kim's talk of not losing power and exploring hydroelectric and geothermal energy sources is probably due more to need than to environmental concerns, believes Baker.

This view was shared by Duyeon Kim, a senior member of the Future Forum of the Korean Peninsula in Seoul. "His speech also seemed to be an implicit admission that the sanctions seem to be working or expected to bite," Kim said.

But the North Korean leader's speech also hinted at how he plans to ensure that his country survives sanctions paralyzes ntes pointing to Pyongyang's oil imports.

"The electric power industry must maintain and strengthen the self-sustaining power generation bases, and direct a great deal of effort to develop new sources of energy," Kim said.

Coal has helped boost North Korea's economy for decades. The country's reserves could last for decades, and could possibly become gas to meet the country's energy needs, since its capacity to import oil was cut, according to Baker.

North Korea exports in 2015

Source: MIT Observatory interactive graphic of Economic Complexity

It is believed that North Korea has already started the construction of coal gasification plants, but the long set of instructions Kim's detailed in this year's speech urging the country's chemists to accelerate their research in synthetic gas chemistry will likely give renewed focus efforts, hoping they can overcome the challenges faced in perfecting the technology.

Stratfor & # 39; s Baker said that this could be interpreted as the regime's response to sanctions, and particularly to the imposition of sanctions by China. "He's a bit annoyed with the rest of the world to emphasize how stupid sanctions are," Baker said.

Reforming expectations

Despite hopes that the youngest member of the Kim dynasty would be an economic reformer when he took office in 2011, Kim, who was educated in Switzerland, soon made it clear that he was not Friend of the West. .

Any remaining hope for an incipient opening, or the adoption of an economic model more in the Chinese style, seemed to be firmly nullified in 2013, when in a New Year's speech, Kim announced his specific intention to build the military power of the country. He further distanced himself – and his country – from the international community in general.

This was followed last year by Kim's statement that his country was close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile with nuclear capability (ICBM).

Some scoffed at the prediction or discarded it completely. But by the end of 2017, Pyongyang had successfully tested three ICBMs. That success has some analysts concerned about Kim's order to mass-produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the 2018 speech.

But the byungjin model also requires achievements in areas beyond the armed forces, and Kim has shown a clear intention to begin that process. The question now is how much can you achieve, given the massive international restrictions?

Speaking to CNN in December, Curtis Melvin, principal investigator of the Korea and United States Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said that private pizza salons, coffee shops, bars and service stations have mushroomed silently in Pyongyang under the supervision of Kim.

According to Melvin, the Kim government has allowed more business activity and encouraged limited competition among small private companies.

But so far, most of this seems to be concentrated in Pyongyang, beyond the limits of the capital, economic growth has been dependent on large projects backed by the state.

As always, sanctions will remain the biggest obstacle in terms of this type of reform.

But, conversely, sanctions also give Kim a useful excuse if things do not go according to plan.

The sanctions offer a very effective reason why there are setbacks, said the Kennedy School of the Park of Harvard. "They (sanctions) are a multipurpose variable or factor that the regime uses."

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