The days-long Workers’ Party Congress -- convened to draft a new economic plan -- began shortly after Kim skipped his usual New Year’s Day address.
Leader Kim Jong Un issued a dire warning at North Korea’s first ruling party congress in five years, saying development plans fell far short of their goals and the party would explore a “new path” for making a “big leap forward.”
The days-long Workers’ Party Congress — convened to draft a new economic plan — began shortly after Kim skipped his usual New Year’s Day address. In opening remarks Tuesday, Kim said the party’s previous five-year development plan, which ended last year, missed its targets due to both “internal and external challenges,” according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
“The goals we set were immensely underachieved in almost all sectors,” Kim said, according to KCNA, making a rare admission of fault by planners.
Remarks reported by state media didn’t mention any plans by Kim to revive stalled negotiations with the U.S. to curtail his nuclear arms program in exchange for easing sanctions choking the state’s paltry economy. The gathering of 5,000 delegates and party officials is being closely watched for clues to how Kim will approach the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.
Koh Yu-hwan, president of a government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification think tank in Seoul, said North Korea would probably hint at its U.S. and South Korea strategy in later congress meetings.
“North Korea may have calculated that the sanctions regime will last for a while,” Koh said. “It is finding problems internally to speed up the economic recovery, things North Korea can do during the sanctions regime.”
Kim is one of the few world leaders yet to congratulate — or even acknowledge — Biden’s defeat of President Donald Trump, who dispensed with decades of U.S. foreign policy to hold three meetings with the North Korean leader. There was no mention of the president-elect in the initial accounts of the event.
Biden’s camp has signaled more room for negotiations, and the president-elect’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has backed a negotiated settlement with North Korea that first freezes and then rolls back its nuclear program in return for rewards.
State media also didn’t explain what Kim’s “big leap forward” would entail, other than that the congress would lay the groundwork for improving living standards. The term evoked the Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” in neighboring China, a disastrous attempt to catch up with the industrial powerhouses of the West that contributed to mass famines.
The meeting, where leadership changes are expected, comes as Kim’s battered economy was dealt further blows by natural disasters and his decision to shut borders due to the coronavirus. Gross domestic product likely shrank by 8.5% in 2020, according to a projection by Fitch Solutions, leaving it smaller than when Kim took power in 2011 with a pledge to improve people’s living standards.
Kim has few options to turn around finances but a United Nations Security Council report said he has used illegal ship-to-ship transfers of contraband and cyber-crimes to earn money.
“He’s groping in the darkness for a solution,” said Jo Dong-ho, a professor of North Korean economic studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University. Jo added it’s highly unlikely Kim can open up like China and Vietnam because that would first involve nuclear concessions to the U.S. — a gatekeeper of sanctions.
Images in state media showed Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong seated a row behind the leader, easing recent speculation among observers that her power had been clipped after she led a contentious pressure campaign against South Korea.
Kim Jong Un also indicated that purges of cadres could be underway. Last year, he dressed down officials for falling short of goals, most prominently in July when he lashed out at the “careless budgeting” for a showcase hospital construction project in Pyongyang that had fallen behind schedule.
The project appears to have been hit by a shortage of building materials, underscoring the difficulty he faces to improve living conditions while toiling under sanctions.
Kim’s most recent public speech — at a military parade in October — featured a rare show of emotion, with the leader appearing to cry as he talked about the country’s economic struggles under international sanctions. He also rolled out several new weapons designed to strike U.S. and allied forces, including what is believed to be the world’s largest road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.
“I am skeptical he will discuss the new Biden administration in detail, if he even mentions it explicitly, that is,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an independent political analyst who used to work for the U.S. government in areas related to North Korea. “Kim will probably want to maintain flexibility as the new U.S. administration formulates its North Korea policy,” she said.