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Kim Jong-un admits economic failures, holds off on foreign policy

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks on the first day of the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, Jan.5, 2021. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks on the first day of the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, Jan.5, 2021. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un admitted Tuesday his five-year economic plan had failed “terribly” to deliver on expectations for almost every sector, as he opened a party congress for the second time since 2016. Kim, who came to power in 2012, did not address foreign policies.

The key party meeting, attended by the ruling Workers’ Party members, delegates and spectators, sets forth the regime’s major economic and foreign initiatives and involves a party reshuffle. In 2016, Kim introduced a policy seeking a parallel development of nuclear weapons and the economy.

“We still see impediments to our drive for a socialist utopia, both inside and outside, and the way forward is self-reliance,” Kim said, referring to the routine self-help strategy the regime employs to encourage North Koreans to power through obstacles.

Experts said Kim, who is portrayed as an infallible leader there, had to be blunt and acknowledge the shortcomings of his own policy adopted in 2016.

“He has no choice now but to be honest. Anything else would make him look absolutely foolish, something he can ill afford considering the troubled state North Korea is in,” said Harry J. Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest.

The North Korean economy is ravaged by the coronavirus, massive summer floods and US-led sanctions, with a growing food crisis worsening livelihoods there.

Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said, “Kim chose to be the caring and loving leader because he knew even he couldn’t look away from the spiraling economic crisis.”

“And it’s not his first,” Shin added, referring to the October military parade a year ago, when Kim visibly shed tears thanking North Korean in a rare display of public affection seen as evoking sympathy.

Kim could have ulterior motives, other experts said.

“Look at it backward, Kim’s admission is a rhetorical question asking his people what they have done, when their leader feels sorry for what happened,” said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said, “He isn’t really accepting responsibility even though it might sound like it to some.” Maxwell said Kim has excuses like the COVID-19 response, natural disasters and international sanctions to blame.

Experts agreed that Kim was implying COVID-19 when he referred to impediments inside that that thwarted the push for a socialist utopia.

“I think the main internal problem is likely COVID-19. Even though they deny reports of any cases, the measures they have to implement to prevent the spread cause internal problems,” Maxwell said, adding volatile capital lows and corruption in the government are next in line.

Kim, anxious to show visible economic success in the runup to the congress, executed a currency trader in late November, blaming him for the local currency’s steep gains against the US dollar that had been unprecedented in years.

Kazianis said, “Quite simply, Kim, to save his regime from COVID-19, had to damage his domestic economy to a great extent. COVID-19 is actually a bigger threat to Kim than the United States, and he knows that.”

Pyongyang still claims it has zero coronavirus cases, though it has reportedly sent an application to secure vaccines from Gavi, an international organization helping low-income countries with inoculations. The group declined to comment on North Korea’s application.

Leader Kim, who did not discuss long-awaited foreign policies ahead of US President-elect Joe Biden taking office soon, was saving them for his last pitch, experts said.

“It’s still day one. He could bring them to the table later the week, when he sees a bigger global audience,” said Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, adding Kim would not be quick to dictate terms of engagement with Biden, when he has yet to reveal North Korea policy.

“I think Kim is hoping that Biden will make the first move and offer Kim some major concession (some sanctions relief) to restart talks,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at RAND Corp.

“The fact that Pyongyang hasn’t staged a provocation recently shows it will wait on Washington. Kim’s message, if he gives one, would be measured so as not to provoke Biden,” said Shin of the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

Vice President Choi of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies said that could not be the case altogether.

“Kim has been silent on the dealings with the US since the October military parade. He seems to have nothing to add to that unless the US gives him something to shoot back on. ” Choi added, “Biden appears more invested in dealings with China and Iran. That’s another sign.”

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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