(Bloomberg) -- North Koreans and outside observers expecting leader Kim Jong Un to make his traditional address on New Year’s morning instead were handed a new script that enhanced his unpredictable image.
North Korea opened 2020 by issuing a “Report on the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers,” an almost 4,400-word text that outlined what Kim had to say after a rare and lengthy meeting of the ruling party that started in the final days of December. There was no speech as of afternoon local time and the Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency said there was no indication that one would be coming.
Instead, North Korean state TV showed Kim leading the four-day Workers’ Party meeting, with the stentorian narration that has long accompanied the regime’s biggest propaganda moments. Kim had delivered a televised address every year since 2013 and speculation was building for months about what he might say hours after the expiration of his year-end deadline for U.S. President Donald Trump to ease up on sanctions.
Those speeches, like similar addresses by Kim’s counterparts around the world, gave Kim an opportunity to communicate directly to his people. Wednesday’s broadcast, however, seemed designed to demonstrate the young leader’s complete command over the ruling party.
Footage showed Kim addressing the assembled cadres from atop a raised desk adorned with the party’s hammer-and-sickle emblem. He told them he was no longer bound by his pledge to halt major missile tests and would soon debut a “new strategic weapon,” adding to Trump’s foreign policy concerns as he seeks re-election this year.
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“Kim’s message was measured, calculated and quite calm,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser on Northeast Asia and nuclear policy at the International Crisis Group. “He sounds intent that they will resume weapons testing, including long-range missiles.”
Kim Jong Un also left Trump guessing as to exactly what “new path” he could take in 2020, but North Korean state television may have given a hint by showing clips of missiles rocketing into the sky over a looped hour-long video of the meeting. Weapons featured included missiles fired from mobile launchers and a rocket lifting off from what appeared to be an underwater platform.
The new year’s event was the latest example of Kim’s efforts to paint himself as a versatile leader, from handshake photo-ops with Trump to rides on horseback across the snowy slopes of the sacred Mt. Paektu. A year ago, when diplomacy between Kim and Trump looked more promising, the North Korean leader ditched the formalities of a podium and microphone bank to deliver his new year’s address from a plush leather chair in front of a wooden mantelpiece, like a fireside chat.
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Kim was seen in the same room where he delivered that address just a few weeks ago, speaking to his top military brass who were shown on state TV as diligently taking notes.
Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, began the new year’s address tradition in the 1940s and it has been carried on in some form ever since. Even though Kim Jong Un didn’t make a formal address this year, the state still got his point across to the country’s roughly 25 million citizens, including a front-page spread party in the country’s biggest newspaper.
“He pretty much said everything at the meeting that he would have said in the New Year’s Day speech,” said Duyeon Kim. “There were the typical elements that included his message to the North Korean people and his message to the outside world, while the only thing missing was his message to South Korea.”
--With assistance from Jihye Lee.
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