8th Korean Worker’s Party Congress and the economy: Day 1

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Party congress in Pyongyang opened yesterday, Tuesday January 5th, and we already have some rather brief reports from KCNA. First, some relevant snippets from Kim Jong-un’s review of the Central Committee’s work:

He said that he is going to suggest through the report the key line of struggle and strategic and tactical policies for the epochal advance of the socialist construction and other important issues arising in accomplishing the cause of national reunification, promoting external relations and strengthening the work of the Party after strictly reviewing the work of the 7th Central Committee in the aspects of success and mistake.

The Supreme Leader reviewed the shining successes achieved by our Party and people in the period under review.

He also analyzed the mistakes manifested in the efforts for implementing the 5-year strategy for national economic development and their subjective and objective factors.

Underlining the need to start the work for further developing the overall economy of the country under a new five-year plan, the Supreme Leader analyzed the present states of the key industrial sectors including metal, chemical, electricity, coal, machine and mining industries and set forth the tasks for future development.

(Source: “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Starts Report on Work of 7th Central Committee of WPK,” Korean Central News Agency, January 6, 2020.)

As I’ve argued elsewhere, there is relatively little that the state  can do under current conditions to advance any “key industrial sectors”, aside from changes in management structures and extolling people to work harder and better — measures that will only have a marginal impact, if any.

Kim Jong-un also opened the congress with a speech, a few snippets related to the economy below:

However, though the period of implementing the Five-Year Strategy for the National Economic Development ended last year, almost all sectors fell a long way short of the set objectives.

Still existing are the various external and internal challenges that hamper and hinder our efforts and advance for fresh and continuous victories in socialist construction.

The key to breaking through the existing manifold difficulties with utmost certainty and speed lies in consolidating our own strength, our internal force, in all respects.

Proceeding from the principle of finding the cause of mistakes not in the objective conditions, but in the subjective conditions, and resolving all problems by enhancing the role of our motive force, the current congress is going to make a comprehensive and profound analysis and judgement of the experiences, lessons and mistakes we have made during the period under review and, on this basis, define the scientific goals and tasks of struggle, which we can and must accomplish without fail.

The successes we have already achieved are priceless for us, and so are the bitter lessons that have been accumulated.

All these are things that cannot be bartered even for gold, and constitute valuable assets for achieving fresh victories in the future.

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.

In particular, we should be bold enough to recognize the mistakes which, if left unaddressed, will grow into bigger obstacles and stumbling blocks, and take resolute measures against their repetition.

This congress has been convened on the basis of this pluck and commitment.

If the Eighth Party Congress, a congress for struggle, carries out its work in a substantial manner and puts forth a correct line and strategic and tactical policies, the Korean revolution will greet an era of a new leap forward and upswing.

[…]

First, it conducted the work of making a comprehensive, three-dimensional and detailed analysis and review of how the decisions of the Seventh Party Congress were implemented and drawing experiences and lessons for future progress and development.

To this end, the Party Central Committee formed a non-permanent central inspection committee and sent it to lower units on a mission to learn about the actual situations there and carefully listen to the opinions of workers, farmers and intellectuals who are Party members and work in the field.

The non-permanent central inspection committee conducted the work in the way of dispatching its teams to provinces and, after grasping the actual situations there, dispatching them to ministries and central institutions by direction and sector to make brisk, comprehensive and detailed inspections.

The teams thoroughly examined all aspects of the actual situation including what was wrong, what was neglected among what could be carried out and what was implemented in a profitable way or formalistic way in executing the decisions of the Seventh Party Congress, and if there were shortcomings, what were their causes and what were the defects in Party guidance.

During the days when the Party congress was prepared, departments of the Party Central Committee and other Party organizations across the country submitted to the Political Bureau of the Party Central Committee and the preparatory committee of the congress reports of their work over the last five years and innovative and detailed opinions on the goals and plans of struggle in the future.

(Source: “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Makes Opening Speech at 8th WPK Congress,” Korean Central News Agency, January 6, 2020.)

The speech contained relatively few specific and details, and we can probably expect more to come tomorrow. It seems to me that much of this, too, is a repetition of the theme we’ve seen throughout the past year: blaming officials through the chain of command for economic failures. The measure of sending out inspection teams is also consistent with the trend of striving to strengthen government oversight of the economy and, not least, uncover previously hidden financial assets.

Another angle to consider on what it means when Kim says the last plan “failed”: One of its key tenets, according to claims of leaked documents published by Japanese media, was to decrease the country’s trade reliance on China. If anything, given sanctions and the general international environment North Korea has faced over the past five years, that problem has gotten even worse.

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