North Korean leader Kim Jong Un acknowledged that his economic development plans had failed when he opened the country’s first full ruling party congress in five years, state media reported on Wednesday.
In an introductory speech at the congress that began on Tuesday, Kim said that the development goals set at a congress in 2016 “were not achieved in almost all areas to a large extent”, according to the Nordic official Korean central news agency.
“We should further promote and expand the successes and victories we have achieved through our diligent efforts but prevent us from getting the painful lessons back,” he was quoted as saying.
The Labor Party Congress, one of the Nordic region’s largest propaganda goggles, is intended to help Kim show a troubled nation that he is firmly in control and to increase unity behind his leadership in the face of Covid-19 and other growing economic challenges.
But some observers are skeptical that the stage-driven Congress will find some basic solutions to North Korea’s difficulties, many of which stem from decades of economic mismanagement and Kim’s main pursuit of expensive nuclear weapons aimed at the US mainland.
Kim, 36, is holding the congress, which is expected to last a few days, in the middle of what may be the toughest challenge in his nine-year rule and what he has called “several crises”.
Authoritarian North Korea is one of the poorest countries in Asia, and the already besieged economy is being hammered by pandemic-related border closures with China, the Nordic region’s largest economic lifeline, the fallout from a series of natural disasters last summer and persistent US-led sanctions over its nuclear program.
US President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office later in January, is likely to maintain sanctions and avoid any direct meeting with Kim until North Korea takes significant steps toward denuclearization.
Congress met in Pyongyang to determine “a new line of struggle and strategic and tactical policy”, with thousands of delegates and observers present, the KCNA reported.
In his speech, Kim described the current difficulties facing his government as “the worst of all” and “unparalleled”, according to the KCNA.
Kim called for a new five-year plan and reviewed the current status of North Korea’s metal, chemical, electrical and other important industries and provided unspecified data for future development, KCNA said.
This is not the first time Kim has been candid about faulty systems and policies. Last August, he acknowledged economic “shortcomings” caused by “unexpected and inevitable challenges.” Last year, he said that North Korea lacked modern medical facilities and that conditions for coastal disasters were “poor”.
Diplomacy is deadlocked as sanctions continue
Few experts doubt Kim’s grip on power. However, prolonged coronavirus-related lock-in could further destabilize food and foreign exchange markets and worsen supplies in North Korea. It could possibly reduce Kim’s authority, some observers say.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said that “the fundamental problem” is that “Kim wants government maintenance of economic growth while retaining nuclear weapons.”
“Thus, Pyongyang is likely to demand sanctions easing just to reduce tensions rather than make progress with denuclearization,” he said.
US-led sanctions intensified after Kim’s unusually aggressive conduct of nuclear and missile tests in 2016 and 2017. They maintain a ban on major export items such as coal, textiles and shellfish. Still, Kim has repeatedly pushed for an expansion of its nuclear arsenal to cope with what he calls American hostility.
Kim entered into talks with President Donald Trump in 2018, but their diplomacy has been deadlocked for about two years due to violations of sanctions.
The pandemic and typhoons and floods last summer – which destroyed houses, farmland and other infrastructure throughout North Korea – have further damaged the Nordic economy.
After a year-long closure of its border with China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, bilateral trade volume fell by about 80% in the first 11 months of last year from the corresponding period in 2019, says analyst Song Jaeguk at Seoul’s IBK Economic Research Institute. North Korea’s GDP was estimated to have fallen by 9.3% by 2020, he said.
Following the sharp drop in foreign trade, North Korea saw a fourfold increase in imported foods such as sugar and spices in markets while its factory level fell to its lowest level since Kim took power due to a shortage of raw materials, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in late November.
“I can not think of a word to describe how difficult it is for the North Koreans going through now, rather than saying that they are suffering terribly,” Song said. “If the coronavirus pandemic continues, they will suffer more.”
Promote the image of caring leaders
Kim has been pushing to burn an image as a caring leader.
State media said Kim sent New Year’s cards to ordinary citizens in what Seoul called the first such letter from a 26-year-old North Korean leader. During a speech in October, Kim shed tears as he thanked the people for resisting difficulties. He has also made an unusually large number of visits to the countryside affected by the typhoons and floods.
Officially, the Congress is the party’s decision – making body at the highest level, although important daily decisions are made by Kim and his inner circle. The delegates gathered for the congress are expected to support new initiatives by Kim without much debate. Congress would still give Kim a chance to strengthen his authority by announcing a new vision, appointing loyal lieutenants to top positions and demanding a stronger unity behind his leadership.
Many experts say that North Korea has no choice but to maintain its border closure as the pandemic continues around the world, as its public health system is still broken and a major outbreak could cause serious consequences. Despite taking draconian antivirus measures, North Korea has claimed that it has not found a single virus case on its land, which is allegedly widely doubted by foreign experts.
During the congress, the Nordic countries can issue conciliatory messages regarding the ties with the future Biden administration while underlining their traditional ties with China and Russia, Seoul’s Ministry of Unity said in a report on the prospects for the congress.
Kim did not mention the United States or South Korea in his speech on Tuesday. He is expected to give a few more speeches before the congress ends.
Some experts say Kim is unlikely to launch a major provocation any time soon as it would dampen the prospects for early talks with the Biden government, which faces many urgent domestic issues.