In The News

North and South Korean New Year’s Resolutions

January 13, 2010

North Korea has traditionally utilized the new year to set priorities and provide guidance to its people. Under Kim Jong Il, this guidance has come out in the form of a combined New Year’s editorial published by three major media outlets. South Korean presidents have also used a New Year’s speech outlining major priorities. North Korea’s joint editorial and Lee Myung-Bak’s New Year’s speech emphasize that both Koreas are putting importance on the economy while refraining from criticizing each other.

The similarities end there. North Korea’s joint editorial emphasizes its technological accomplishments (satellite launch and nuclear tests), heavy industry advancement (improved steel-making methods), and political loyalty (fireworks displays allegedly organized by putative successor Kim Jong-eun). From a North Korean perspective, 2009 was a good year; “The victorious great upsurge of last year confirms that the DPRK is developing in leaps and bounds. …”

The North Korean priority for 2010 is to build on prior accomplishments by improving the people’s standard of living so that “hooray for socialism and singing of Arirang of prosperity can ring out louder across the country and the gate to a prosperous nation can be opened” in 2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. Not mentioned in the New Year’s editorial was the draconian currency revaluation last November that wiped out wealth created outside the government sphere and dealt a body blow to North Korea’s markets, and which Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard project in a new policy brief on the subject will impoverish average North Koreans and will not contribute to the goal of rebuilding state socialism.

South Korea’s Lee Myung-Bak, fresh off a successful effort to win South Korea’s first international contract to provide a nuclear energy production plant to the UAE, pledged to focus on the economy by creating new jobs and enhancing South Korea’s international competitiveness. Job creation will be pursued through promotion of the service industry and fostering of small and medium-size businesses with “cutting-edge innovative capabilities.” Other priorities for 2010 include education reform, regional development, election system reform, and “omnidirectional diplomacy,” including improvement of inter-Korean relations. He also pledged to raise South Korea’s global profile, including through South Korea’s opportunity to host the G-20 in November of this year. Although South Korea was one of the first countries to stabilize its economy following last year’s global economic crisis, Lee’s agenda acknowledges that much remains to be done to support a full economic recovery. (For more insight on South Korea’s economy, see a presentation by Byongwon Bahk, former senior economic advisor to Korean President Lee Myung-bak, co-sponsored by The Asia Foundation Monday, January 11, at the World Affairs Council: “Lessons from South Korea’s Economic Policy During the Global Financial Crisis,” was moderated by The Asia Foundation’s Philip Yun.)

An apparent positive for the peninsula is that both sides set aside criticism of each other following a dramatic deterioration of relations in 2009, stimulating speculation in the South Korean press that a third inter-Korean summit might occur this year. Lee Myung-bak proposed a standing channel for inter-Korean dialogue, interpreted in the media as a proposal to establish liaison offices in Seoul and Pyongyang, while the North Korean joint editorial noted the tenth anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit and the June 2000 inter-Korean joint declaration, advocating that “reconciliation should be promoted with the common national interests given precedence.”

Both the North and South Korean New Year’s resolutions might be seen as cause for dramatic improvements on the Korean peninsula in 2010; on the other hand, we all know that it doesn’t take long for most New Year’s resolutions to be broken.

This piece was originally published on the Council on Foreign Relations blog Asia Unbound.

Scott Snyder directs The Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy. He can be reached at ssnyder@asiafound-dc.org.

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