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NK’s 2022 policy direction: Prioritize internal stability, wait and see on foreign policy

Pyongyang’s silence on S. Korea, US could indicate its agony, internal difficulties

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held in Pyongyang between Dec. 27 and 31. (Yonhap-KCNA)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held in Pyongyang between Dec. 27 and 31. (Yonhap-KCNA)
North Korea’s five-day party plenum was dominated by internal affairs including economic growth, agricultural development, and preventative measures for COVID-19, with Pyongyang’s recalibrated approach to South Korea and the US remaining veiled.

North Korean state media on Saturday announced the outcome of the fourth Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which was held between Dec. 27 and 31 and attended by leader Kim Jong-un.

The report on the party plenum is of significance, despite its lack of details, as it lays out North Korea’s policy direction for the new year.

In essence, Pyongyang would prioritize internal affairs this year. 

The Kim Jong-un regime would put more emphasis on enhancing the internal durability of the regime and combating innumerable internal challenges, including the sluggish economy, food insecurity, the rural-urban imbalance, and control on COVID-19. Half of the plenary session report was devoted to agricultural and rural developments.

But North Korea is expected to take a wait-and-see approach to Seoul and Washington in a year filled with major international and political events. The absence of the announcement on foreign policy directions could be either an indication of Pyongyang’s struggles to set a clear one or its attempt to expand room for maneuver in the uncertain external environment. 

Internal stability first, foreign policy later
This year, North Korea would adhere to the original policy line of developing a self-reliant and self-sufficient economy and continuing nationwide ideological campaigns while developing national defense capabilities, Seoul-based experts and think tanks assess.

North Korea would push forward its frontal breakthrough campaign on the basis of self-reliance strategy, nuclear buildup, and the nationwide ideological campaigns of eradicating anti-socialist and nonsocialist practices, professor Kwak Gil-sup of Kookmin University said.

“It would be the year that put more emphasis on internal affairs. North Korea would give weight to enhancing internal durability of the system and resolving internally generated contradictions,” Kwak told The Korea Herald.

Experts share the view that Pyongyang would send a message to South Korea and the US pro re nata through various channels including official statements and implementing propaganda maneuvers while putting a priority on internal affairs.

“In a nutshell, North Korea takes the approach of ensuring internal stability ‘first’ and making strategic and tactical moves in inter-Korean and foreign relations ‘later,’” Kwak said. 

Wait-and-see approach to S. Korea and US
In this context, North Korea will take a “wait-and-see approach” on foreign policy in a year filled with major domestic and international events, including the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the March 9 South Korean presidential election, and the US midterm elections.

North Korea conspicuously condensed the outcome of its review on foreign policy to one sentence and did not share the details on its recalibrated approach to South Korea and the US in the report.

“The conclusion presented principles and a series of tactical directions, which must be maintained in North-South relations and external affairs, in response to the eventful and rapidly changing international political situation and surrounding environment,” state-run Korean Central News Agency reported in a Korean-language dispatch.

The brief report is puzzling as a “sectoral workshop” on foreign policy was held during the plenary session, with the attendance of key officials including Foreign Minister Ri Son-gwon, United Front Department director Kim Yong-chol, and International Department director Kim Song-nam.

But there are differing views on the intent behind North Korea’s perfunctory announcement.

On one hand, the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS) assessed in a report that North Korea intends to expand flexibility and room for maneuver in implementing foreign policy at a time of whirlwind uncertainties and changes in the external environment.

On the other, the government-run Korean Institute for National Unification (KINU) said in its report that the silence on a wide range of foreign policy issues including an end-of-war declaration, the US-China rivalry, the Beijing Olympics, could indicate that North Korea is still grappling with its foreign policy direction.

North Korea is in a conundrum over its foreign policy and only has limited options in the runup to the South Korean and US elections and the Beijing Winter Olympics, Cho Han-bum, senior research fellow at KINU, told The Korea Herald.

“This is a difficult situation for North Korea to clarify its position on foreign policy,” Cho said. “It would be burdensome for the country to make high-tier provocations. But on the other hand, North Korea has nothing more to yield to make a proposal on dialogue.”

Cho pointed out that Pyongyang was well-aware that the improvement in inter-Korean and US-North Korea relations are indispensable to tackling economic problems and vaccine supply challenges.

“North Korea’s hard-line approach particularly in the runup to the elections in South Korea and the US could lead to pulling the plug on dialogue and negotiations. It would bring nothing beneficial to North Korea.”

Bluffing on economic performances
The absence of a message to South Korea and the US also would indicate that “Pyongyang does not have the luxury of looking at the outside world” in light of its economic desperation, Cha Du-hyeogn, principal fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, told The Korea Herald.

The common assessment is that North Korea has failed to spark economic growth, given that the country did not disclose specific results apart from a few construction projects in the report, despite its propaganda on economic achievements in the first year of the five-year plan. 

In the report, Pyongyang did not announce whether the country achieved the goal set for the first year of the five-year plan.

North Korea’s overstatement could stem from concerns that the failure in the first year would cause a loss of impetus in implementing the five-year plan, according to the INSS.

North Korea’s bluff on economic achievements would ironically show the urgency it feels to develop its economy.

“The report of the plenary meeting appears to suggest that the five-year plan is falling through and shows the sense of urgency of properly implementing the plan this year,” Cha said, adding North Korea still faces several critical challenges this year.

During the meeting, Kim Jong-un notably said that North Korea would face “heavy yet responsible agony while becoming aware of the strategic importance” of 2022’s projects.

Cha pointed out economic growth was an essential component to consolidate Kim Jong-un’s ruling legitimacy, taking note that the party plenum’s report still highlighted the development of advanced weapons systems as the year’s front-page achievement.

“Fundamentally, Kim Jong-un must present tangible achievements to the North Korean people to reinforce the ruling legitimacy unlike his predecessors, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il,” Cha said. “But there have been no satisfying outcomes. Therefore, Kim Jong-un needs to bet on (economic achievements).” 

Agricultural and rural developments
Also noteworthy, Pyongyang put a greater emphasis on agricultural and rural developments and discussed the matters as a separate agenda at the party plenary.

In a nutshell, the major objectives are to establish affluent farming villages and fundamentally improve the rural living environment. Kim Jong-un also personally proposed a 10-year plan to make great strides in developing agricultural productivity, although it was light on details as to how it would get there.

The necessity of pushing ahead agricultural and rural developments stems from the urgency of resolving chronic food shortages as the country faces hurdles in overcoming economic recession aggravated by sanctions and yearslong lockdown measures. The intensified imbalance between urban and rural areas is also a prime reason.

But Choi Eun-ju, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, pointed out that there were fundamental and overarching reasons behind North Korea’s move to set “long-term” plans to develop rural areas and increase agricultural productivity.

“The plans reflect North Korea’s intent to resolve internal, essential problems to lay the foundation for (a self-sufficient and self-reliant economy) rather than to simply combat the food shortages,” Choi said.

More importantly, the plan for agricultural and rural developments can be seen as North Korea’s state-level response to the changing environments including a shift in diet, the expansion of agricultural land as a result of land reclamation projects.

“Against that backdrop, my view is that North Korea made the general overview of these matters as the necessity for restructuring agriculture was raised.”

Choi said the “new program for socialist rural construction” adopted at the party plenary was North Korea’s move to adapt to the changes in environment. The new program was largely seen as the updated version of the “Theses on the Socialist Rural Question” announced in 1964 by Kim Il-sung.

Although North Korea is expected to maintain lockdown measures and self-imposed isolation, there is a silver lining here.

Analysts have taken notice of North Korea’s plans to reinforce ways and capabilities to switch its epidemic prevention into an advanced and people-oriented one, underscoring the scientific and technological approach.

The plans could suggest North Korea’s openness to receive vaccines and proceed with health and medical cooperation on the COVID-19 vaccine, although it is too early to predict.

“We should keep an eye this year on whether there will be any changes in the way that North Korea implements preventive measures and the changes will lead to opening borders,” Choi said.

By Ji Da-gyum (dagyumji@heraldcorp.com)
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