Traditionally, the New Year is punctuated with a speech from the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, Kim Jong Un. The speech usually lays out the direction the country plans to head in over the following 12 months. In 2018, the speech was effectively the starting pistol for the thaw in relations which saw the DPRK and ROK walk together into the stadium during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and eventually led to the Singapore summit between the Marshal Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump in June. However, this year the speech seems to have not occurred (at time of writing). Whilst it may be puzzling why this powerful tool seems to have gone unused at such a tense time, the Worker’s Party of Korea Central Committee (CC) plenary meeting only wrapped up a day or two before new years; using the CC rather than the Marshal directly to make these policy announcements may be a smart move both internationally and domestically.
The Central Committee plenum was held in the CC Headquarters in Central Pyongyang (KCNA)
The December 2019 plenary meeting saw all the members* of the DPRK’s most powerful policy making organ convene to discuss some of the important issues currently facing the country; most took this to mean the stalemate between Pyongyang and Washington over denuclearisation. Kim Jong Un led the first meeting in which he made, for the first time in a while, explicit mention of the nuclear force; praising the development of the country’s military might, he said the current US-DPRK situation had become “a direct stand-off between self-reliance and sanctions”. He also raised the possibility that sanctions would remain and so the DPRK would need to prepare for continued hardship under economic pressure from Washington.
A major take-away from the meeting was the clear shift from previous rhetoric about the US over the last two years. Whilst relations have been deteriorating for a while, especially since the failed Hanoi summit in February 2019, this plenum marks the first official shift in policy as the DPRK prepares for a possible return to a more aggressive anti-Washington stance.
Official attendees included all members (full and alternate) of the Central Committee as well as members of the WPK Central Auditing Commission
So, why did the Marshal Kim Jong Un not make a speech (so far)?
The plenary meeting was likely intended to stand in for a public speech. The 3 day summit meeting saw the core of the government convene to make key decisions for the future of the country. This sends a clear message to the international community, and to the domestic audience, that the country and government is united in its policy shift. Officials in Washington can’t misread the situation since a multi-day summit in which your country is described as “brigandish”, “double-dealing” and “impudent” is about as clear a message as it’s possible to give.
For more detailed information on the play-by-play of the CC meeting, the Rodong Sinmun article (Worker’s Party of Korea Party Newspaper) provided a full report here
*The meeting also reportedly included various other institution members including officials from various party and national government organs as well as the chairpersons responsible for the provinces, cities, counties and the rural economy. Also present were officials of the various organs of the DPRK Armed Forces.