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USJI Voice Vol.35

Deciphering North Korea’s Dialog Offensive

January 17,2018
Atsuhito Isozaki
Associate Professor, Keio University

Information necessary for deciphering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is woefully scant. Today’s near absence of conclusive evidence regarding the real character of Kim Jong-un as the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission (SAC) and the country’s policymaking process makes it important to examine messages released by the North itself. The author has been interested in the boundary between what can and cannot be unraveled by scrutinizing Rodong Sinmun as the official newspaper of the Worker’s Party of Korea. By no means does the author consider such a North Korean version of Kremlinology to be a versatile research technique. The study of propaganda is nonetheless useful for surmising the intended direction of the country. Arguably, the approach is something similar to the analysis of a manifesto—for even if a manifesto may be divorced from reality, it is still a useful reference for understanding the vision and reasoning of the sender. Above all, the customary New Year’s speech by Chairman Kim offers a crystal ball for forecasting the upcoming year.

Dialog offensive in the New Year’s speech

The latest New Year’s speech contained more notable points than the five previous ones. Following on the victory declared in the DPRK government statement marking the launch of an ICBM on November 29, Chairman Kim celebrated the historical accomplishment of a national nuclear capability with more than four time as many references to “nuclear” compared to last New Year’s speech. He remarked: “the entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, and a nuclear button is always on my desk.” Then, he went on to order North Koreans to “focus on mass producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment.” But the most striking feature from the overall speech is rather the dialog offensive directed at South Korea. Just as a year ago, Kim wore a suit without a badge of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. But the lighter gray color of the suit this year may be a choreographed sign of a conciliatory stance.

The speech unexpectedly ventured ahead and expressed the country’s “readiness to take various steps, including the dispatch of a delegation” to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang to be held this February. Until then, there had not been a clear announcement regarding the Olympic games to be hosted in the South. The party newspaper Rodong Sinmun and other official media would use ambiguous expressions like “an international event” to refer to the Olympics.

Kim’s intention to drive a wedge in the alliance between the United States and South Korea by launching this dialog offensive is apparent from his slogan “uriminzokkiri (we, the fellow nation)” that is used in the speech three times, as well as his remarks that “the North-South relationship is solely an internal affair of the Korean nation. The matter should be taken into our own hands, North and South.”

At the same time, his desire to avoid confrontation with the United States can be seen through the word “peace” mentioned 10 times in a speech lasting no more than 30 minutes. In fact, he stressed that “As a responsible nuclear weapons state, our Republic will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty and interests are encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces.”

While seemingly neglecting diplomacy, Kim Jong-un’s administration has been pressing forward with nuclear and missile tests since January 2016. But the tone of Rodong Sinmun clearly changed after the regime went ahead with the sixth nuclear test on September 3 last year. At the end of September, all mention of military inspections virtually disappeared from reports on Chairman Kim’s activities: instead, the newspaper began to focus on Kim’s activities related to the economy. The regime must have gained confidence in its deterrence against the United States. At that point, North Korean leaders must have already begun elaborating a strategy for a dialog offensive against South Korea—if not even earlier.

Chairman Kim is clearly poised to strive for an improved livelihood for the North Korean people even under the tightening economic sanctions. The songun (military first) principle from the days under Kim Jong-il has finally disappeared. Under this circumstance, the nationally-minded Moon Jae-in administration that was inclined to appease North Korea was naturally the most approachable negotiation partner.

The economic policy is being strongly steered back toward self-reliance in defiance of the economic sanctions. For instance, his stress on Mallima (horse traveling 10,000 miles) and charyok kaengsaeng (self-reliance) resonates with the earlier Chollima movement under Kim Il-sung

Resumption of inter-Korean dialog

On January 9, the Moon Jae-in administration responded to Kim’s New Year’s speech by holding an inter-Korean ministerial talk, where the participation of a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang was confirmed along with the decision to hold military dialog. In keeping with the North-South Joint Declaration signed in 2000 between President Kim Dae-jung and Chairman Kim Jong-il, the two sides agreed that “the Korean nation in the North and South will directly resolve all issues on our Korean peninsula through dialog and negotiation.”

Nonetheless, the progress in the inter-Korean dialog will depend on support from the Trump administration in the United States. The return to a honeymoon period between the administrations of Kim Jong-il and Kim Dae-jung will be difficult unless North Korea intends to compromise on nuclear and missile issues.

The North may be fully aware of this fact as it has deliberately launched a dialog offensive. The truth is, the North is not very eager to participate in the Winter Olympics held by the South, which is a slap in face for Chairman Kim, who loves sports and has built many ski slopes. The North’s announcement to participate in the games with almost no conditions is a one-sided ‘gift’ for the South. The next question is whether the North will gain economic cooperation or other tangible concessions from the South in the later bargain.

At present, the North shows no willingness to work with the South on nuclear and missile issues. Unless the Trump administration makes any moves toward negotiation, North Korea may try to stir things up by declaring the suspension of missile launch tests. Indeed, in the Japan-North Korea summit in 2002, mainly intended to address the issue of the abduction of Japanese, North Korea offered a missile-test moratorium as a ‘gift’ to encourage the then Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi to convince the Bush administration in its favor. Therefore, the possibility of a daring policy shift should not be excluded from the future scenarios for North Korea.

Japan and North Korea in deadlock

In contrast to South Korea in dialog with the North Korea, the Japanese government has not changed its stance of exerting maximum pressure via working with the international community. Japan has been tightening economic sanctions toward North Korea over the past 10 years. With no imports or exports since 2010, Japan does not have its own trump card for winning any change in the Kim Jong-un regime. The resumption of the inter-Korean dialog demonstrates the extreme difficulty for Japan, the United States, and South Korea to keep in step with one another. Moreover, it is impossible for these three countries to unify their policy toward North Korea together with China and Russia. In this regard, the insistence on continued pressure against North Korea is all too idealistic.

Japan must resolve not only the nuclear and missile issues, but also the issue of the abduction of Japanese by North Korean agents during the 1970s and 80s. Based only on the official Japanese count, 17 victims were abducted in an infringement of Japanese sovereignty. In 2002, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited North Korea for the summit with Chairman Kim Jong-il, who succeeded in bringing back five victims to Japan after a few decades. Other victims remain in North Korea, and there is no knowledge of their safety.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeatedly manifested his will to resolve the issue while he is still in power. But there is no sign of progress. It is high time for the Japanese government to decouple the abduction issue from the nuclear and missile issues in order to bring negotiations forward with the Kim Jong-un administration. Without such political determination, it is no wonder the families of abductees and the public express their distrust concerning the seriousness of the government’s will to revolve the abduction issue. Progress on the abduction issue will only be possible through Japan’s own diplomatic efforts.


Atsuhito Isozaki
His research focuses on contemporary North Korean politics. Previously, he served as a special analyst on North Korean politics in the Intelligence and Analysis Service of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was a senior researcher on North Korean politics at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. In addition to this, he was selected as a Japan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Asia Program and a visiting scholar at the Sigur Center of the George Washington University. His major publications include Understanding the North Korean Regime (Woodrow Wilson Center, 2017) and New Introduction to North Korean Studies (in Japanese, 2017, coauthored with Katsumi Sawada).


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