Time to Party Like it's 1994

For Korea-watchers who were expecting to work through their hangovers by sifting through another New Year's Editorial, Kim Jong Un had a surprise in store. Returning to his grandfather's template, he gave a speech instead. The speech centered on the slogan for 2013, "Let's Use the Spirit and Consciousness that Conquered Space to Change the Situation in Constructing an Economically Powerful Country"and Kim set the tone during his introductory niceties, calling for "a devoted struggle for the fatherland's wealth and prosperity".

So, following on from the themes we've seen in 2010 and 2011, the citizenry's attention is being drawn towards economic issues, with military ones taking a back seat. The mode for improvement still harks back to classic communist imperatives, however, where spirit, unity and struggle will bring about development.

Nonetheless, this New Year's Address should be seen in the context of an ongoing transition, the foundations of which are both generational and ideological. Kim Jong Un can be seen as moving away from Military First, which is a lengthy and uneven process. In the speech, North Korea's need for military might was still highlighted as necessary for a thriving nation. Indeed, a strengthened military was called for, but ultimately "building an economically powerful country and going forward fulfilling the feat of building  a powerful socialist country is today's greatest task," he says at another point. That this speech had only very weak military-related content is quite clear.

Much of the speech unsurprisingly comprises vague exhortations, but some noteworthy passages stand out. The Huichon power station is linked to improving the material-technological foundations of the economy. Kim also states that they "must improve the people's dietary life to be more bountiful." Demands for "actual development" must also be met through improved economic leadership and management.The word 'reform' was used a handful of times, primarily in reference to the need to improve industry, specifically the coal and metal mining industries.

For those of you with an interest in empirical measurements, Kim Jong Il's "Songun" only got six mentions this year. Kim Il Sung's "Juche" got 13. But as much as the content of Kim's speech is important, the very fact that he made a speech at all demonstrates his continuing efforts to associate himself with the pre-Songun era of his grandfather. Implicit in Kim's style is a return to the relative stability and prosperity that Kim Il Sung oversaw.

Returning to content, perhaps the most striking thing was how Kim Jong Un spoke about South Korea and did not speak about the United States.

As Park Geun-Hye prepares to take office in less than two months, Kim called for a "removal of the confrontation" between the two Koreas. He didn't offer details on how relations would be improved, though he did state that previous North-South joint statements must be respected and implemented.  Regardless, it bodes well that both he and the South's president-elect Park are talking about changing the relationship.

Importantly, there was no criticism or even mention of the United States in the speech. Perhaps this signals the potential for some kind of outreach from Pyongyang to Washington D.C.. If the Obama administration is willing to take a backseat to initiatives between Seoul and Pyongyang, there is the opportunity for the three countries to move forward on trust-building and development projects to a degree that has not existed in over a decade.

One musn't be naive, but in Pyongyang's first New Year's speech since 1994, there were at least hints that it could be a happier 2013 on the Korean peninsula.