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[Research Reports] Rhetoric and Expression of the "People-first Principle" in North Korea Prerequisites for economic management during the post-Songun era

Tomoki Iimura (Research Fellow, JIIA)
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Research Group on 'Korean Peninsula' FY2021# 8

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

The "People-first Principle" - a characteristic of the Kim Jong-un regime?

In January 2021, the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) proposed a revision of the Party's rules as one of its main agenda items. In the preface of the revised Party rules, "People-first" politics were set as a new "basic political model under socialism". Considering that "Songun (military-first) politics" had a similar position at the time of the previous Congress in May 2016 (cf. Kim Jong-un's "conclusion of the review of the work of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea") and that there was no mention of "Songun politics" during the 8th Congress, it can be said that the Kim Jong-un regime has entered a new phase by making an ideological break from "Songun politics" ten years after its inauguration. Furthermore, based on the revival of the post of Party General Secretary which was touted at that Congress and the subsequent assumption of the position by Kim Jong-un, the interpretation can be offered that the "People-first Principle", which had been advocated as a slogan immediately after the inauguration of Kim Jong-un as a successor, now characterizes Kim Jong-un as a leader and, at the same time, it has been given a role as a sign (identity) to differentiate him from his ancestors.

Is this shift from "Songun politics" to a "People-first Principle" synonymous with the image directly evoked by the language, i.e., a shift in emphasis from the military to the economy (especially people's livelihoods)? In the context of North Korea, how will the "People-first Principle", which is literally linked closely to the improvement of people's standard of living, be realized amid economic difficulties? In order to find hints for understanding the direction of the North Korean economy, which is difficult to grasp statistically and quantitatively, I would like to consider these questions using recent North Korean primary materials.

Logical structure of the "People-first Principle"

When looking at North Korea's discourse in terms of these questions, the first thing to notice is the substance of the seemingly reciprocal structure contained in the logic of the "People-first Principle". For example, the "People-first Principle", which is defined as "a political idea about making the people the master of revolution and construction, relying on the people, and devoting oneself selflessly to the people," (cf. Kumsu-Kangsan (금수강산) vol.3, 2022, pp. 49) rhetorically regards the will of the general public as the starting point, on the basis of which the leader carries out measures to maximize the benefits for the general public, but the exact opposite vector had been projected with regard to the actual decision-making and policy execution processes. As straightforwardly indicated in the wording "the leader develops a grand concept for the people, and the people cause this concept and determination to blossom as a brilliant reality; this is precisely the great picture of the people-first politics that can only be seen in the DPRK." (cf. Tongil Sinbo (통일신보) July 17, 2021), it is taken as a given that decisions on the interests of the "people" are made solely by the leader (Kim Jong-un), with the people deepening their trust in the regime by encountering (or being involved in) the policies carried out on the basis of these decisions. Such an arrangement can be easily seen in the process of unfolding the "narrative" in the state-run media that Kim Jong-un has swiftly taken measures against the torrential summer rains that have frequently occurred in recent years, and the farmers in the disaster-hit areas have committed to expressing further loyalty and gratitude, passionately insisting that "we're afraid that we are causing worry to our Dear Leader by being unable to fulfill our role, but he's taking such gracious steps. Is there anyone else who has received such tremendous love and trust as us? "(cf. Rodong Sinmun (로동신문) October 8, 2020). Of course, this can be interpreted primarily as reflecting a phase in which public opinion has gained strength as a factor influencing the stability of governance during the Kim Jong-un regime, making it difficult for the authorities to keep ruling over the country even with an iron grip without consideration for that factor. At the same time, there clearly remains an imbalance in these vectors in the reciprocity within the policy making process as a countermeasure, and the fact that this can be summarized as "the Party regards the people as heavenly masters, and the people trust and obey the Party infinitely like their mothers. This kind of single-hearted unity is the true figure of DPRK and the great foundation of the Juche revolution" (cf. Journal of Kim Il Sung university (History) (김일성종합대학학보(력사학)) vol.67 no.1, 2021, pp.34) is the most prominent feature in the logic of the "People-first Principle".

The logic of the "People-first Principle" has a peculiar structure with respect to its realization process as well. Specifically, its basic structure is designed "to make all parties and societies one mind and one body, in other words, to make the whole country one life form with the same idea, intention and action as the Party Central Committee (note: Kim Jong-un)" as "the ideal goal of the task to establish the monolithic leadership system of the Party Central Committee" (cf. Kim Jong-un's "Policy Speech" (September 2021)). It also requires that Party and labor organizations at all levels "develop all tasks accurately according to the intention of the Party Central Committee, and to evoke Ilkun (note: officials) and workers (...) and carry out the revolutionary task brilliantly" (cf.  First Short Course for Chief Secretaries of City and County Party Committees (March 2021)) and, at the time, it positions the "People-first Principle" as the basic principle that should be passed on to Ilkun and workers (cf. Sixth Conference of Cell Secretaries of WPK (April 2021)). On the other hand, the process was depicted as being completed only between Ilkun and the workers (i.e., the people). In particular, with the explanation that Kim Jong-un had formulated the "People-first Principle" as the essence of the Party's leadership idea and positioned "selfless devotion to the people" as the Party's mode of existence, and through the narrative that Kim Jong-un placed "improvement of people's livelihood and welfare" at the center of the Party's tasks and made the efforts in that regard a criterion to reward and rebuke Party administrative Ilkun, a characteristic structure was revealed that placed Kim Jong-un himself as a leader outside the scope of responsibility (cf. Journal of Kim Il Sung university (History) (김일성종합대학학보(력사학)) vol.66 no.1, 2020, pp.16-22). Furthermore, by proclaiming such enforcement of morality against Ilkun in the name of a "revolution in personnel administration", a way of thinking that links the spiritual renewal of Ilkun directly to economic outcomes was manifested, while making Ilkun a node (a kind of cut-off valve) between the leader and the people.

"Now is the time to bring about a revolution in personnel administration before solving the acute economic problems...the revolution in cadre management which has always been regarded as of priority importance by our Party in the whole course of its development, is an important Party-wide task that has to be further intensified and strengthened on a priority basis to suit the current situation of our revolution...Noting that what's taken note of by our Party in bringing about a revolution in the personnel affairs is the work style and moral traits...all the cadres have to always bear in mind that our Party's prestige and image are mirrored in their work style and moral traits." (cf. Enlarged Meeting of 2nd Political Bureau of 8th central committee, WPK (June 2021))

The meticulous attention to the people required of the Party/administrative Ilkun in these discourses in fact included not only "educating them (note: people) to have a clear understanding of harmful effects and consequences" of "reactionary ideology and culture, malignant tumors" but also to "grasp all the possibilities of the infiltration of heterogeneous lifestyles and take preventive measures." (cf. Kim Jong-un's "Letter to Tenth Congress of Youth League" (April 2021)). From this, it is clear that "selfless devotion to the people" here had a strong color of surveillance, in other words, that the intention of authorities was to strengthen their control over the people. As a result of such manipulation of rhetoric, it has become possible for the leader, Kim Jong-un, to unilaterally serve as an embodiment of the "People-first Principle" through his words and actions during on-the-spot guidance, or through performance such as delivering a "special order" to stabilize people's livelihoods (3rd Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the WPK (June 2021)). At the same time, with a structure in which only Ilkun are responsible for demonstrating "selfless devotion to the people" - controlling the people - in the actual policy implementation process, any discrepancies and setbacks that may occur in the process are attributed to Ilkun and the enforcement of morality against Ilkun further reinforces the "People-first Principle" ideology.

From the above considerations, it can be concluded that the essence of the "People-first Principle" as an ideology is to realize the visible result of improving living standards while ignoring the responsibility of the leader, to enhance the convergence of the people's will and reflect it in policy in a top-down process, and to strengthen intervention and control of the people. The intention to ideologically unify the whole people under the leadership of the Party is a conscious approach that has always existed among the North Korean authorities. However, in North Korea today, authorities have no choice but to emphasize consideration for the will of the people, even if only formally ("You must serve the people as much as you serve the great leaders." (Rodong shinmun June 2, 2020)), and they must support it with visible economic outcomes. It may be said that the most characteristic feature of the "People-first Principle" ideology during the Kim Jong-un regime is that the traces of the struggle to maintain this intention under such circumstances are quite apparent.

Policy implications

While more attention needs to be paid to the consequences of the ideological policy itself, what implications can be derived from the above analysis? - Especially when it comes to economics, the possibility immediately comes to mind that the pressure on Ilkun as executives of economic policy will rise not only "from above" but also "from below". This is in line with the fact that economic management after the 8th Party Congress has shifted to strengthening control (withdrawing the discretionary power of individual units) under the slogan of "internal motive force". It is necessary to pay attention to future trends. In addition to the fact that the strengthening of military power has been announced again, it is also necessary to pay attention to recent discourse such as: "The DPRK would as ever focus all state efforts on bolstering its defense capabilities on a top priority basis...this signal development of the Juche-based national defense would have been unthinkable without the trust and ardent patriotism of all the people who rendered unconditional and absolute support and encouragement to the indispensable sacred cause of building up the nuclear war deterrence of the country....He (note: Kim Jong-un) sent warm congratulations and all glory to our great people who built the absolute force of self-defense which cannot be bartered nor be bought with anything and held it firm themselves without the slightest vacillation."(Kim Jong-un's remarks after the test launch of new ICBM 'Hwasongpho-17' (March 2022; underlines by the author)) When considering these rhetorical remarks justifying the military expansion, it is strongly speculated that military power will be strengthened as part of the "People-first Principle", and that coping with the pressure of "improving the people's livelihood" will become the basis of the authorities' approach, considering it as a given that the resources allocated to the civilian economy is reduced further. It is necessary to pay close attention to what kind of economic management will be carried out when these become the basis of the authorities' thinking and actions. One more thing to add is that this kind of roundabout structure found in the logic of "People-first Principle" (it might be said that, despite the conclusion being obsolete, its substance is undergoing change or that the process leading to the conclusion is being altered to maintain the conclusion itself) is difficult to visualize because of its subtlety or superficial identicalness. This suggests that the increasing pressure to improve people's lives, especially under the Kim Jong-un regime, is becoming "hard to see" from the outside and that the fact this factor is a sensitive issue for North Korean authorities and influences their policy making and implementation processes might be dismissed. Of course, it is true that there is a sizable gap between official ideology (propaganda) and reality, and it is also a fact that the authorities themselves have come to admit to some extent that promoting ideological policies has become even more difficult1. However, an approach that fully considers the "basic form" of the North Korean authorities' thinking and behavior patterns and its background will continue to be important in considering North Korea, which is still an "invisible existence."

(This is an English translation of a Japanese paper originally published on March 31,2022)

1 "The officials in the Party information field are doing lots of work, in fact, he said. He spoke highly of them, remarking that our Party's ideological front is being defended thanks to the officials in the information field who render great exertions for the mass education and ideological transformation while burning their hearts with the resolution to prove the worthy of the expectation of the Party and the people although they are pressed for everything." (Kim Jong-un's letter to the first workshop of officials in information field of WPK, Rodong Sinmun, March 29, 2022)