'Painful lessons': Kim Jong-un's surprising admission in congress speech

·5-min read

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un admitted his economic development plans have failed as he opened the nation’s first full ruling party congress in five years, state media reported on Wednesday (local time).

In an opening speech at the congress that began on Tuesday, Mr Kim said “almost all sectors fell a long way short of the set objectives” under a previous five-year development plan established at the 2016 congress, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.

“We should further promote and expand the victories and successes we have gained at the cost of sweat and blood, and prevent the painful lessons from being repeated,” he was quoted as saying.

The Workers’ Party Congress, one of the North’s biggest propaganda spectacles, is meant to help Mr Kim show a worried nation he’s firmly in control and to boost unity behind his leadership in the face of Covid-19 and other growing economic challenges.

 Kim opened its first Workers’ Party Congress in five years with an admission of policy failures and a vow to lay out new developmental goals, state media reported Wednesday. Source: AP
Kim Jong-un opened the first Workers’ Party Congress in five years with an admission of policy failures and a vow to lay out new developmental goals. Source: AP

But some observers are skeptical the stage-managed congress will find any fundamental solutions to North Korea’s difficulties.

Mr Kim, 36, is holding the congress, which is expected to last a few days, amid what may be the toughest challenge of his nine-year rule and what he has called “multiple crises”.

Authoritarian North Korea is one of the poorest countries in Asia, and the already besieged economy is being hammered by pandemic-related border closings with China, the fallout from a series of natural disasters last summer and persistent US-led sanctions over the nuclear program.

US President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office later in January, will likely maintain the sanctions and avoid any direct meeting with Mr Kim until North Korea takes significant steps toward denuclearisation.

North Korea facing ‘worst-ever difficulties’

The congress met in Pyongyang to determine “a fresh line of struggle and strategic and tactical policies”, with thousands of delegates and observers in attendance, KCNA reported.

In his speech, Mr Kim described the present difficulties facing his government as “the worst-ever” and “unprecedented”, according to KCNA.

Mr Kim called for a new five-year plan and reviewed the present status of North Korea’s metal, chemical, electric and other key industries and set unspecified tasks for future development, KCNA said.

Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-un, centre, speaks during the 8th Congress of the Workers' Part of Korea opening ceremony in Pyongyang. Source: EPA/KCNA
Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-un, centre, speaks during the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea opening ceremony in Pyongyang. Source: EPA/KCNA

It’s not the first time Mr Kim has been candid about flawed systems and policies. Last August, he acknowledged economic “shortcomings” caused by “unexpected and inevitable challenges”.

Also last year he said North Korea lacked modern medical facilities and anti-disaster conditions in coastal areas was “poor”.

Few experts doubt Mr Kim’s grip on power. But a prolonged coronavirus-related lockdown may be further destabilising food and foreign exchange markets and aggravating livelihoods in North Korea.

That could possibly lessen Mr Kim’s authority, some observers say.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said “the fundamental problem” was “Kim wants regime-sustaining economic growth while retaining nuclear weapons”.

“Pyongyang is thus likely to demand sanctions relief for merely reducing tensions rather than making progress on denuclearisation,” he said.

US-led sanctions toughened after Mr Kim’s unusually aggressive run of nuclear and missile tests in 2016 and 2017.

They maintain a ban on major export items such as coal, textiles and seafood. Nevertheless, Kim has still repeatedly pushed for an expansion of his nuclear arsenal to cope with what he calls US hostility.

The pandemic and typhoons and flooding last summer — which destroyed houses, farming land and other infrastructure across North Korea — have further hurt the North’s economy.

A person passes by a bouquet of Workers Party flags along a main street of the Central District in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Party Congress is one of the North Korea's biggest propaganda spectacles and is meant to help leader Kim Jong-un show his people that he is firmly in control. Source: AP

After a year-long closure of its border with China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner, bilateral trade volume plummeted by about 80 per cent in the first 11 months of last year from the corresponding period in 2019, analyst Song Jaeguk, from Seoul’s IBK Economic Research Institute said.

Following the sharp drop in external trade, North Korea experienced a fourfold increase of imported foodstuffs like sugar and seasonings at markets while its factory operation rate dropped to its lowest level since Kim took power because of a shortage of raw materials, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in late November.

Kim Jong-un sends New Year’s cards to citizens

Mr Kim has been pushing to burnish an image as a caring leader.

State media said Mr Kim sent New Year’s Day cards to ordinary citizens in what Seoul called the first such letters by a North Korean leader in 26 years.

During a speech in October, Mr Kim shed tears while thanking the people for withstanding difficulties. He’s also made an unusually large number of visits to rural areas hit by the typhoons and flooding.

People walk past a billboard announcing the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party along a main street of the Central District in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday. Source: AP
People walk past a billboard announcing the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party along a main street of the Central District in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday. Source: AP

Officially, the congress is the party’s highest-level decision-making organ, though key day-to-day decisions are made by Mr Kim and his inner circle.

The delegates gathered for the congress are expected to endorse new initiatives by Mr Kim without major debate. The congress would still provide Mr Kim with a chance to solidify his authority by announcing a new vision, naming loyal lieutenants to top posts and calling for a stronger unity behind his leadership.

Many experts say North Korea has no other option but to maintain its border closure as the pandemic continues worldwide, because its public health care system remains broken and a major outbreak could cause dire consequences.

Despite taking draconian anti-virus measures, North Korea has maintained it hasn’t found a single virus case on its soil, a claim widely doubted by foreign experts.

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