You should never take what North Korean leaders say at face value. But it is worth noting that Kim Jong-un recently talked about economic development, even the need to feed the North’s populace with “a bowl of cooked rice,” and the restraint in idolizing his own leadership.
It may not be news that a North Korean leader emphasizes economic development and a stable life for his people, but it should be noted that Kim made such comments after his efforts to earn relief from international sanctions failed at the recent summit with US President Donald Trump.
Kim’s comments on the need not to engage in excessive deification of the country’s supreme leader, a long-held tradition handed over throughout the dynastic rule of the Kim family, may also indicate a shift to in the way the young dictator rules the country.
Kim made the two points in a letter addressed to a national conference of the rank and file of the propaganda apparatus last week. North Korea experts noted that it was the first time in 18 years the North brought together all elementary-level propaganda officials across the country.
In the letter addressed to participants, Kim did not hide the fact that North Korea, whose already impoverished economy is being hit further by international sanctions, is going through “severe ordeals and difficulties.”
He noted there is no more urgent revolutionary task than achieving economic development and improving people’s daily lives, and that the participants should focus their efforts on construction of a strong socialist economy.
He noted that it was the lifetime wish of his grandfather and North Korean founder Kim Il-sung and his father Kim Jong-il to enable the populace to “eat a bowl of cooked white rice and meat soup, wear silk clothes and live in a decent house.”
In both South and North Korea, meat and white rice -- previously more expensive than other grains like barley and corn -- had been symbols of a decent life.
But unlike in today’s South, even simple meals have not been available to many among the North Korean populace since Kim Il-sung made his first promise to feed his countrymen with white rice and meat soup in 1962. Instead, millions of North Koreans suffered in severe famine during the 1990s.
In 2010, Kim Jong-il, the current leader’s late father, reprimanded himself that he was failing to fulfill his father’s instruction to feed people with white rice and meat soup and that his heart ached to see people eat corn.
It is against this historical backdrop that Kim Jong-un’s comment is noteworthy. It may reflect a desperate economic situation in the North, which has been slapped with the harshest-ever sanctions over its nuclear and missile provocations. It also may be part of his efforts to demonstrate to the outside world that he is more concerned about the economy than sticking to nuclear weapons.
If the third-generation North Korean leader’s commitment to providing people with a steaming bowl of cooked rice and hot meat soup is not surprising, Kim’s comment on how to promote his own leadership may well perplex North Korea watchers.
The Kim family and the North Korean administration had been notorious for deifying the successive heads of the Kim family – from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-un. It is a little surprising therefore that the junior Kim said in the letter that “mystification of the supreme leader’s revolutionary activities and look will only shroud the truth.”
Only when the people are drawn to the supreme leader’s human quality and comradeship can they have absolute loyalty, the letter said. At conflict is that Kim emphasized in the same letter the importance of educating people about the “greatness of the Kim family.”
Nevertheless, it marks the first time a member of the Kim family has called on officials not to make a god of the core members of the family who have been ruling the country for more than seven decades.
It is hoped these latest developments are signs of Kim coming to his senses and working to become a normal leader of a normal country. Needless to say, getting rid of nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction should precede any steps toward a normalized state that works with the international community and can properly feed its people.