Archive for the ‘DPRK organizations’ Category

North Korea is more connected to global markets than you might think

Wednesday, October 13th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

After a hiatus during the summer following my PhD defense, I now plan to get back to posting regular analyses and news content here. First up, an interesting example of why the North Korean economy is in fact more connected to global commodity markets than many might think.

Over the past few weeks, coal prices have skyrocketed in China, following energy shortages record-high coal prices. In September, the country’s coal imports surged by 76 percent, fueled flooding in one of the country’s main coal producing regions.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that Chinese demand for North Korean coal — the commodity at the heart of international sanctions on North Korea — is reportedly growing. As Daily NK reports:

According to a source in Pyongyang on Wednesday, there have been noticeably more requests for coal from Chinese traders since North Korea’s national foundation day holiday on Sept. 9. He said there have been several illegal transshipments of coal for export over the last month.

China has recently limited trade with private North Korean traders, dealing instead with official North Korean trading bodies. The source said, however, that Beijing now approves transactions with any North Korean entity that can provide China with coal, including private ones.

In fact, the Chinese government has reportedly launched no particular crackdowns on private imports of North Korean coal.

Rather, according to a source in China, some provincial civil servants in China are advising traders to take care not to get photographed when they transship coal. Essentially, the Chinese government is turning a blind eye to imports of North Korean coal, an internationally sanctioned item. At the same time, they are asking traders to exercise caution, aware that the international community is watching.

(Source: Seulkee Jang, “Amid coal shortages, Chinese traders on the hunt for more North Korean coal,” Daily NK, 7/10/2021.)

There are several things worth noting about this. First, again, it should not be surprising. China’s enforcements of sanctions against North Korea depends primarily on whether Beijing believes it to be in the national interest to clamp down on trade or smuggling. Clearly, China now needs cheap coal, and it’s been a long time since the North Korea issue was at the center of international politics and diplomatic tensions. So there appears to be comparatively little to lose in increasing trade for the moment, although China has been significantly letting up on its sanctions enforcement for several years now, since the days of “maximum pressure” in 2016–2018.

Second, North Korea still appears to be getting shafted by China, who exploits its position as the almost exclusive monopoly buyer buyer to purchase coal from North Korea at prices lower than world market prices or Chinese domestic prices. The precise proportions are uncertain, but Daily NK reports that China is paying less than half of world market prices for coal imports from North Korea, although their source also notes that the North Korean side is using the global shortage as leverage to jack up prices. In other words, while China may in some sense be North Korea’s “patron”, commercial market logic is much more important in coal trade than often assumed, and China isn’t necessarily doing it to help North Korea.

Third, and to tie back to the title of this piece, North Korea, despite its policies of economic autarky, is in fact deeply connected to global commodity markets. This isn’t just true for currency prices. Although the size of North Korea’s foreign trade remains comparatively abysmal, its economy is, just like most other economies today, tied to the broader dynamics of global supply and demand.

It still remains to be seen how much trade can expand under the current North Korean border shutdown. Though some goods are getting through, the border largely remains under lockdown due to Covid-19 despite intermittent news reports that trade might restart and return to its former scale. As many analysts have noted, Covid-19 has succeeded in closing the border more tightly to trade than most sanctions regimes have. How much Pyongyang is willing to meet Chinese demands and let coal shipments go across the border in larger scale, potentially increasing the country’s exposure to the virus (in the eyes of the leadership) remains to be seen.

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The economy in the Central Committee Plenum (February 2021)

Tuesday, February 16th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

During the recent (2nd) plenary meeting of the Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee, several remarks were made that focus on the economy. Most seemed to follow the statements during the Party Congress, both in tone and focus. Emphasizing the role of legal measures seems to be a way to regularize and formalize the orders set out at the congress. Legal supervision, after all, is something continuously ongoing, unlike rule by decree. It’s unclear what “irrational elements” means in the KCNA summary, but my sense is that it may be about semi-legal and highly dubious (from the state’s point of view) practices of essentially private entities partnering with and using the bureaucratic cover of state-owned companies for business purposes.

Here’s an excerpt of the KCNA coverage from the third day, with my emphasis added in bold:

The General Secretary in his report suggested important tasks for firmly ensuring the implementation of the national economic plan by law and channeling all Party works into the fulfillment of this year’s economic tasks.

The report stressed the importance to strengthen the legal supervision and control over the establishment and executive process of the national economic plan, the order of the Party and the law of the state.

It called upon the legislation sector to remove irrational elements becoming stumbling blocks to the implementation of the national economic plan and enact and perfect new laws for every sector which help promote the efficiency of the production and construction.

It said that legislative bodies including the prosecution organ should increase their role to make sure the national economic plan is properly distributed and correctly executed, and in particular, stage a strong legal struggle for checking all kinds of illegal practices revealed in economic activities, adding that all sectors and units should obey them unconditionally.

Analyzing that the faults revealed in the economic work in the last period are caused by the party organizations which failed to fulfill their responsibilities and role as organizers and standard-bearers in carrying out the Party’s policies, the report proposed tasks of the party organizations for intensifying the party guidance and political guidance from the standpoint of holding full responsibility for the result from the implementation of this year’s economic task.

It referred to the ways for the party organizations at all levels to positively play the role in properly steering the implementation of the national economic plan while giving priority to the organizational and political work for arousing the masses to the accomplishment of this year’s goal.

It also suggested tasks calling upon the party organizations of ministries and national institutions to properly grasp and guide the execution of Party’s economic policy by enhancing the level of the Party work in line with the characteristics of their units in charge of important portion in the overall work of the state and to strengthen the direction of the party life of public service personnel.

Concluding his report on the first agenda item made through three consecutive days, the General Secretary said that the plenary meeting was convened in the timely and necessary period in the sense that it helped rectify mistakes from the stage of planning this year’s work and newly decided on the great work for the people and also helped find out and correct the ideological maladies including passivism and self-protectionism latent in officials.

(Source: “Third-day Sitting of 2nd Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee Held,” Korean Central News Agency February 11th, 2021.)

Here is an excerpt of the second-day coverage, again with emphasis added in bold. The bottom paragraph restates much of the language from congress a few weeks ago about increasing state control:

Saying that propping up agriculture is an important state affair that must be successful at any cost to solve the food problem for the people and successfully push ahead with the socialist construction, the General Secretary analyzed the achievements and experience gained in the agricultural field for the recent several years and set forth tasks of stably and steadily developing the agricultural production based on them.

Emphasized in the report were the issues of taking prompt state measures for supplying farming materials on which success or failure of farming for this year hinges for the present, pushing ahead with the work of providing a material and technical foundation for the agricultural production in a planned way and bringing about a decisive improvement in the Party work in the rural areas.

[…]

The General Secretary in the report evinced the militant tasks to be carried out by the People’s Army and the munitions industry this year for implementing the decisions set forth by the 8th Party Congress, and the direction of future action to be taken by the sector in charge of affairs with south Korea and the sector in charge of external affairs, before underscoring the need to thoroughly carry them out without fail.

The report noted that the success or failure in this year’s economic work depends on the capability and role of the state economic guidance organs in the main, and made clear the issue that the Cabinet and state economic guidance organs should restore the function peculiar to them as economic organizer and their controlling function to improve the guidance and management over the whole economy, the one of improving the role of non-permanent economic development committee and other important practical issues for consolidating the Cabinet-centered system, Cabinet-responsibility system.

(Source: “Second-day Sitting of 2nd Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee Held,” Korean Central News Agency, February 10th, 2021.)

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The Pyongyang General Hospital delay

Sunday, January 31st, 2021

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As previously reported by 38 North, neither the Pyongyang General Hospital nor the Wonsan-Kalma resort were completed on schedule. A recent report by Radio Free Asia, based on sources within North Korea, confirms that a lack of goods that need to be imported from China is what’s holding construction back (among other things). At the same time, it isn’t necessarily a lack of funds that’s being cited, but rather, the inability of imports to get through due to the border lockdown:

Work on the hospital began in March 2020, but it has been several months since construction was put on hold.

The pet project of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should have had a guaranteed supply of materials, an official of Pyongyang’s municipal government told RFA’s Korean Service Jan. 21.

“However, the interior work has not been started at all. Electric wiring, lighting, marble, other interior materials and medical equipment should have been imported from China, but they have not been brought in due to the coronavirus,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

North Korea and China shut down the Sino-Korean border in January 2020 and suspended all trade, a move that has all but closed the North Korean economy off from the rest of the world.

Though builders tapped domestic suppliers to begin construction on the hospital’s exteriors in March, work cannot continue until imports resume.

During the ruling party’s eighth congress, held Jan. 5-12, the party ordered factories and other government agencies to wean themselves off of imports so the country’s economy could be more self-sufficient.

But RFA reported last week that because the congress decided to invest heavily in North Korea’s tourism sector, government officials were scrambling to find ways to import materials for building interiors in anticipation of a building boom.

“Inpatient facilities will go in the two main high-rise buildings, so elevator installation is the core of all interior work,” the source said.

“Last year, they signed a contract to import elevators and escalators from a company in Shanghai… but the coronavirus has prevented them from being brought in,” said the source.

(Source: Hyemin Son, Leejin Jun, and Eugene Whong, “Construction Delayed on Showcase Hospital Project in North Korean Capital,” Radio Free Asia, January 26th, 2021.)

On the one hand, it would seem sensible to not prioritize prestige projects when overall funds are so low. On the other hand, Kim Jong-un did recently have his beachside manor upgraded, as reported by NK Pro. Whenever equipment really needs to get purchased or imported, there are ways of making it happen…

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Kim Jong-un’s congress speech: strengthening state control over the economy

Tuesday, January 12th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Unfortunately, North Korean state media has not been as forthcoming with coverage of the congress contents as they were on the first day. They did, however, release a summary of Kim Jong-un’s nine-hour long report to the congress. Presumably, Kim’s report contained much greater levels of detail than the (still very long) report summary put out by KCNA on January 9th.

In this post, I try to summarize the most significant parts of the speech where Kim deals with the economy. Such content is plentiful, but as so often in these speeches, many words are used to say very little.

The bottom-line message is clear, however: state control over the economy is increasing and will continue to tighten. What exactly this means in practice is unclear, but we have seen some very troubling examples as of late, such as the reported executions of foreign currency traders, clear signs of strengthened control over foreign currency market rates, attempts by the state to take control over semi-private corporate operations, among many other examples. And let’s not forget all the anti-corruption campaigns. While fighting corruption is undoubtedly a good thing, in the current North Korean context, it often likely means finding cash earned through semi-legal or illegal private economic activity and hidden from the state.

Indeeed, Kim’s report is abundantly clear in stating that he (or, the collective consensus of the North Korean policymakers with the most clout at present, of which Kim is obviously the most powerful) wants the state to be the main planner and decision-maker not just over the general direction of the economy, but on a much more detailed level than that. As others have pointed out, the anti-covid-19-measures may at least in part be the results of anti-market policymakers in the state apparatus using the current situation to push their agenda. Sentences such as the following are particularly concerning: “It is imperative to improve planning and make proper use of the economic leverages including financial, monetary and price administration so as to ensure rational management of the economy.” Price administration requires a level of economic governance by the state which suggests that the policy direction is hardly about merely setting interest rates and making some public investments.

None of this is happening in a vacuum. Overall, since Kim came to power, there’s been a general push to assert state control not just over the economy, but society overall. Border control has strengthened, as evidenced by the dwindling number of defections. Campaigns against consumption of foreign media have seen a significant uptick although, of course, they were always more or less in force in the country. The speech seems to hint at this too, with passages about enhancing the quality of domestic media, which may be an attempt to compete more strongly with the smuggled foreign culture that the regime considers ideologically poisonous. In any case, taking control over the economy is a natural, and perhaps the most central, part of social and political control overall.

For those hoping that North Korea will go in a direction of looser social and economic control by the state, the congress report does not make for joyful reading. The clippings below are only a small fragment of the gargantuan text, I’ve done my best to curate what I consider to be the most interesting and important parts and annotated some of them. My own emphasis in bold:

Although economic construction failed to hit the expected strategic goals, a precious foundation for making sustained economic development by our own efforts was provided, the report said, adding: The greatest of such successes is that the backbone of the self-supporting national economy, the socialist economy, which is the material basis of the existence and lifeline of our own style of socialism, was maintained and its arteries were preserved.

Kim has made similar admissions of failure in the past, so in my opinion, media headlines framing this as unique have been off the mark. In any case, the full message seems to be: things have been bad, little progress made, but at least we didn’t budge on core principles and reform our system.

The Party Central Committee built up new potentials for readjusting and developing the overall economy by taking revolutionary measures for strengthening the unified guidance and strategic management of the state over economic work and making sure that the socialist principles were thoroughly observed in the economic field.

So, some measures taken for enhanced state control, but many remain.

By prioritizing the long-standing and special DPRK-China relations, our Party developed the friendly relations with China as required by the new century and opened a new chapter in the DPRK-China relations of friendship with socialism as its core, the report stressed.

The Party Central Committee strengthened strategic communication, promoted mutual understanding and deepened comradely trust between the two Parties through five rounds of the DPRK-China summit talks and thus provided a firm guarantee for fresh development of the DPRK-China relations as demanded by the times that required continuity in the fraternal ties and unity between the Parties and peoples of the two countries which are inseparably bound up with each other in the struggle for their common cause.

Attaching importance to the fresh development of the traditional DPRK-Russia relations, the Party Central Committee also conducted external activities for the development of friendly and cooperative relations between the two countries, in the course of which it laid a cornerstone for the expansion of friendly relations with Russia.

These passages are interesting not so much because of their substance, but because an explicit goal of the last five-year plan, according to leaks, was to diversify its trade away from near-total reliance on China, and expand trade with Russia in particular. There is no hint of that goal in the report summary.

The report said that due to such obstacles, state investment and supplies intended to bolster the major economic sectors in the five-year strategy for the national economic development could not be carried out properly.

It made an analysis and appraisal of the Party Central Committee on the cause of non-fulfillment of the five-year strategy for the national economic development during the period under review, seriously pointing out that it could not but draw a conclusion that if one ascribes its failure to objective conditions, he can do nothing and the action and role of the driving force will be unnecessary, and it is impossible to accelerate the revolutionary struggle and construction work unless the unfavourable external factors are removed.

The Party Central Committee analysed the current situation, in which the 5-year strategy for national economic development had not been properly set on the basis of scientific calculation and grounds, science and technology failed to actually play the role of propelling the economic work of the country and the work of readjusting and reinforcing the irrational economic work system and discipline was not properly done.

The report referred to the conclusive lesson that the economy of the country can never be boosted without breaking with the wrong ideological viewpoint, irresponsible working attitude, incompetence and obsolete working manner that have been prevalent so far.

In other words: state officials and managers shouldn’t be content with blaming the external environment, the poor performance of the economy is still their fault, because they were not ideologically convinced enough. It is a convenient conclusion to draw for policymakers who want to avoid serious reform at all costs.

The new five-year plan mainly presupposes that the Cabinet, as the economic headquarters of the country, properly enforces the Cabinet-responsibility system, Cabinet-centred system, for economic work, vigorously accelerates the work of strengthening the essential lifeline and integrity of the country’s economy, definitely improves its economic management, actively promotes the normalization of production, renovation and local provision of raw and other materials by dint of science and technology and orientates the external economic activities toward reinforcing the foundations and potentiality of the self-supporting economy.

And the new plan reflects the demands for perfecting the self-supporting structure of the national economy, lowering the proportion of dependence on imports and stabilizing the people’s living by taking the actual possibilities into consideration.

The main seed and theme of the plan are, as always, self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

[…]

It was noted that in order to attain the goal of iron and steel production mentioned in the new five-year plan, scientific and technological problems must be solved to expand production capacity by renovating the existing production lines with advanced technology and building new energy-saving iron blast furnaces in major iron works and steel plants, to invigorate the production of iron ore and to use brown coal in the northern areas for the production of pig iron.

The report also referred to the direction of the development of the core industry of the country, the chemical industry, which can be likened to the lifeline for the construction of the self-supporting economy and the improvement of people’s standard of living.

It is unclear precisely how the state intends to use such increased production. With regards to the chemical industry, it likely has to do with manufacturing fertilizers and liquified coal, to replace expensive oil imports. 

It put an emphasis on important issues for developing the coal industry, an outpost for the development of the self-supporting economy.

Referred to were the issues of boldly unfolding and powerfully propelling the work of intensively supplying equipment, materials, labour and funds to the coal industry, securing more coalfaces by giving precedence to prospecting and tunnelling in the coal industry, putting efforts into the development of the soft coal industry, pushing forward the work of improving the working and living conditions of coal miners as a priority task for increased coal production and taking measures for the effective use of coal.

The report defined the machine industry as an important sector leading and hauling the overall economic sectors, and set forth the immediate orientation of its development after examining the present situation facing the machine industry of the country and its causes.

The basic task facing the machine industry during the new five-year plan period is to make it an industry with solid foundations and switch to a development- and creation-oriented industry.

The machine industry should positively develop and produce modern and high-performance machine products including machine tools, vehicles, building machines, electric machines, mining machines and hydraulic machines.

The report stressed the need to attach importance to the mining industry and shore it up for the sake of the normal development of the national economy.

Many of the goods mentioned here are North Korea’s most central export commodities. They are hardly useless for domestic purposes, but will of course generate much less revenue than if exported.

The basic tasks facing the construction field during the new five-year plan period is to massively carry out the capital construction including housing construction so as to provide the people with a higher civilized living conditions and radically change the appearances of the country.

The construction field should powerfully push forward the two fronts simultaneously−industrial construction for strengthening the economic foundations of the country and construction for meeting the material and cultural needs of the people.

By concentrating efforts on the construction of 50 000 flats in Pyongyang, it should set the annual plans for building 10 000 flats every year, starting from this year, scrupulously organize the construction operation and guidance for implementing the plans and thus basically settle the issue of dwelling houses for the Pyongyang citizens.

25 000 houses should be built in the Komdok area, a leading nonferrous mineral producer where a large contingent of workers live, and thus build it into a mining city with no comparison in the world.

[…]

The field should step up technical updating of its infrastructure and turn mobile communications into a next-generation one as early as possible by developing the relevant technology.

It is needed to readjust the wire broadcasting and cable TV networks, put the relevant technology on a higher level and provide full conditions for the people in all parts of the country, ranging from cities to remote mountain villages, to enjoy a better cultural and emotional life.

This is a very interesting part of the speech which has received little or no attention. The message seems clear: the state has to improve TV programming to compete with the ideologically contaminated competition coming in from abroad, mainly in the form of South Korean TV dramas.

The report raised it as a very urgent issue at present to develop the state-run commerce and preserve the socialist nature of public catering and welfare service, and set forth the tasks for restoring our commerce, true to its name, to public service activities for supporting the people’s life and promoting their material well-being.

The important tasks to be carried out by our commerce without fail at present is to restore the state’s leading role and control in the overall commerce service activities and preserve the nature of socialist commerce of serving the people.

Commercial service units should put their service activities on a people-oriented, cultural, modern and diversified basis with a correct management strategy, and thus create a new socialist service culture of our own style.

[…]

The report underscored the need to tighten discipline in ensuring unified guidance of the state in the economic work, strengthen the national system of unified statistics, launch a proper project for boosting the mainstay of the national economy, and improve the conditions of industrial establishments to carry on their management activities.

Productive forces should be redistributed in a reasonable way so that economic efficiency may increase in the whole realm of the national economy, weak links in the chain of each economic sector identified, and the sectors that are essential for balanced development of the economy reinforced.

It is imperative to improve planning and make proper use of the economic leverages including financial, monetary and price administration so as to ensure rational management of the economy.

The scientific analysis and clear policies the report put forth with regard to the prevailing situation of the major economic sectors and their readjustment and development serve as a powerful weapon of practical importance in consolidating the material and technical foundations of the self-supporting economy and propelling economic construction in a planned and stable way irrespective of the change in the external environment.

Again, as mentioned in the intro to this post, this is all very traditional rhetoric and worryingly so. A very, very far cry from the early days of Kim Jong-un’s rule, when policy experimentation and limited liberalization moves of that time.

The long-term objective for rural construction is to eliminate disparities between the working class and the peasantry, the gaps between industry and agriculture and differences between the urban and rural areas by pushing ahead with the three revolutions in the rural areas and thoroughly implementing the thesis on the socialist rural question; and the immediate task is to give precedence to the work of transforming agricultural workers on a revolutionary and working class pattern, boost state support to the rural areas and build up the rural communities in a balanced way so that they have regional characteristics of their own.

This is pretty standard rhetoric, but it is incoherent given the consistent prioritizing of Pyongyang for prestige projects and the like. The same text even continues to push this priority with promises of new housing construction in Pyongyang.

Mentioned in the report was a task for city and county Party committees and people’s committees to become a powerful engine propelling the development of their regions, master of the local economy and administrator responsible for the livelihood of the people in their regions.

In other words, stronger local government control over economic affairs.

The report also made serious analysis of the work in the field of art and literature, and set forth tasks for ushering a new era of efflorescence of Juche-oriented art and literature by effecting a radical turn on all fronts of art and literature.

Creation guidance officials, creators and artistes in the field of art and literature should display an enterprising working spirit with high discernment to produce good works embodying the Juche character, national identity and modernity, stage characteristic performances, and purposefully carry out the training of reserves on a long-term basis by establishing a proper system and setting development strategy and clear goals.

Tasks were set forth for the mass media to raise the fierce flames of a new revolution in newspapers, news services, radio and TV broadcasting and publishing as required by the new period of drastic change and upsurge in socialist construction so as to wage a vigorous media campaign aimed at deeply instilling into all the people the core of the ideas, lines and policies of the Party Congress and inspiring them to the implementation of the decisions of the Party Congress, and for the field of physical culture and sports to redouble efforts for making our country join the ranks of advanced sports nations in line with the prestige and position of our dignified state.

The innovative orientations for building socialist culture are a reflection of the grandiose plan for creating a new, Korean style of civilization by bringing about a great revolution in all sectors of socialist culture with the successes, experiences, mistakes and lessons gained in the period under review as a springboard for advance and leap forward.

The report put an emphasis on effecting a revolutionary change in the mental and moral life of the people by pushing ahead with the eradication of non-socialist, anti-socialist practices and thorough establishment of the socialist lifestyle throughout the country as an undertaking involving the whole Party, state and society.

All the people should create and develop a noble and civilized new life of our own style and conduct a powerful mass campaign against the practices running counter to the socialist lifestyle, deeply bearing in mind the faith in socialism and love for and trust in things of their own.

Again, a similar theme to above, namely, improving cultural production — implicitly to compete with the inflows of foreign culture and its problematic ideological influence.

The report underscored the need to strengthen the people-oriented nature of the state befitting the intrinsic character of our style of socialist system, realize its unified, scientific and strategic control and thoroughly establish a revolutionary spirit of law observance throughout society as required by the building of a socialist rule-of-law state, and called on judicial, procuratorial, public and state security organs to fulfill their sacred mission and duty they have assumed for defending the system, policy and people as reliable defenders of the socialist system.

[…]

The Supreme Leader in his report put forward the important tasks for strengthening the working people’s organizations, the links between the Party and the masses and its fringe organizations, into powerful political ones, powerful forces for building socialism.

The report stressed the need for the working people’s organizations to hold fast to their internal work in line with their duty as organizations in charge of ideological education to firmly arm all their members with the Party’s revolutionary ideas and, in particular, the need to prepare the youth league as a reliable successor to and reserve of the Party.

[…]

It clarified it as the first task to attach primary importance to establishing the monolithic leadership system and further develop it.

As mentioned in the report the Party organizations and officials should ensure the absolute authority of the Party Central Committee always and everywhere and staunchly safeguard it. And they should never tolerate or connive at even the slightest tendency to undermine the authority of the Party Central Committee, but wage uncompromising struggle against it.

They should consistently push forward with the efforts to defend and glorify the Party’s leadership feats, particularly give a facelift to the units associated with the leadership exploits and the ones inspected by the great leaders, and ensure that they become the model units in carrying out the Party policies.

Party organizations should scrupulously organize the work to carry out the Party policies, learn in detail about how it is done, and review it, so as to thoroughly implement the policies.

To cement the single-minded unity of the Party and the revolutionary ranks in every way by doing the Party’s internal work effectively was raised as an important task in the report.

[…]

The report stressed once again that abuse of power, bureaucracy, irregularities and corruption are what the Party must most strictly guard against and its primary struggle target at present, and that Party organizations should carry on an uncompromising struggle against even any iota of them.

Calling for thoroughly establishing the revolutionary discipline of intensifying criticism, ideological struggle and study and of working according to functions, the report stressed that it is a way of improving the Party work to decisively improve the level and ability of the Party officials.

These last few paragraphs are perhaps not directly related to the economy, but they do emphasize the push under Kim for tightened discipline and ideological-political control.

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What tighter Party membership requirements may say about North Korean society

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

According to reporting by Daily NK, requirements have gotten stricter for membership candidates to the Korean Worker’s Party (WPK). This says several interesting things about the role of the Party and North Korean society more broadly. A few snippets:

In what appears to be a move aimed at “steadying the foundations” of North Korea’s communist party before Party Foundation Day on Oct. 10, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, recently ordered a new set of guidelines aimed at raising party membership requirements to be handed down to party committees and party cell organizations nationwide.

“About a month ago, the North Pyongyan Province Party Committee chairman submitted a petition to the Central Committee saying he thought the situation surrounding the recruitment and expulsion of Party members in the province is serious,” a source in North Korea told Daily NK on Tuesday. “Following this, Comrade Kim Yo Jong ordered the Organization and Guidance Department [OGD] to ensure that the Party is made up of [only] the most loyal of members, and then the OGD recently issued a set of guidelines to Party committees and Party cell organizations nationwide on raising the standards for joining the Party.”

[…]

Notably, the OGD ordered that party membership candidates must wait three years, instead of the normal one year, to become full party members. The source explained that party rules denote a one-year period for being promoted from candidate to full member, but a three-year period is currently being applied even though the rules were never amended. This suggests that rules pertaining to membership may be partially amended at the Eighth Party Congress set to be held in January next year.

“The three-year waiting period has [actually] been in place since March for members joining the Party from the Korean People’s Army,” the source said. “Since 80% to 90% of Party members have served in the military, the new rule was first tested on the military before it was recently expanded to all Party committees and Party cell organizations.”

(Source: Ha Yoon Ah, “Kim Yo Jong tightens party membership requirements nationwide,” Daily NK, September 18, 2020.)

The report speaks to something interesting, more broadly, regarding Party membership and North Korean society. In speaking with people from North Korea, particularly those born prior to, say, the 1980s, it’s often clear that you can hardly overestimate what it means to be a Party member. For social success, marriage, wealth, virtually anything — Party membership was always key.

Now, since the famine and the breakdown of the planned economy, many expected the Party to lose in significance. If money-making opportunities aren’t to be found within the state anymore, surely the Party’s social and political power should begin to wane?

However, there have been relatively few signs of any such change over the past few years. The Party is still, perhaps now more because of the money-making opportunities it gives in the (semi-)private sector, an extremely important institution for social and political advancement, marketization or none. That the market economy has gained in prominence, size and significance does not necessarily mean that the power of the state and the Party has diminished; rather, it may above all have changed. Even though the market may be the chief avenue to truly get rich, Party membership still provides crucial opportunities and access within  the market realm as well.

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The 8th WPK congress announcement: strengthened economic control to come?

Wednesday, August 19th, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

So, the news are out: the central committee of the WPK has formally decided that the Party will hold its 8th Congress in January 2021:

8th Congress of WPK to Be Convened
Pyongyang, August 20 (KCNA) — A decision of the 6th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea was made on August 19.
The decision is as follows:
Our Party and people are carrying out the historical task set forth at the Seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea while breaking through head-on all the barriers to our advance by organizing and launching an arduous revolutionary struggle.

Through this indomitable struggle for implementing the decision made at the Seventh Congress of the WPK the dignity and position of our state has been remarkably raised, the single-minded unity of the Party and the people further consolidated and a great revolutionary turn made in the building of the Party and its overall activities.

On the other hand, economy was not improved in the face of the sustaining severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges, thereby planned attainment of the goals for improving the national economy have been seriously delayed and the people’s living standard not been improved remarkably.

The plenary meeting, after analyzing and reviewing the experience and lessons from the work of the past five years for building a powerful socialist country, decided to convene the Eighth Congress of the WPK as follows to set forth a correct line of struggle and strategic and tactical policies on the basis of the new requirements of our developing revolution and the prevailing situation:

1. The Eighth Congress of the WPK will be convened in January, Juche 110(2021).
2. The agendas of the Eighth Congress of the WPK are as follows:
1) Review of the work of the Central Committee of the WPK
2) Review of the work of the Central Auditing Commission of the WPK
3) On revising the rules of the WPK
4) Election of the leadership organ of the WPK Central Committee
3. One delegate with the right to vote to the Congress will be appointed among every 1 300 Party members and one delegate with the right to speak among every 1 300 candidate Party members. -0-

Kim Jong-un’s speech, however, was far more interesting than the announcement of these agenda items. In my opinion, there are hints in his speech that the Party will continue down the road of strengthening state and Party control over the economy. That doesn’t necessarily spell a return to central planning, but it does mean more restrictions and stronger demands that enterprises and other economic actors adhere to state “goalposts”; perhaps targets of production, and sectors of priority. More like a developmental state than a Stalinist command economy, at least in theory.

Look, for example, at the following two paragraphs from the summary of his speech (my emphasis):

Calling for regularly convening the congresses of the Party, the supreme guidance organ of the Party, in order to confirm the line, strategic and tactical measures for steering the development of the times and the revolution and adjust and reinforce the leadership body for guaranteeing their execution, he advanced the important guidelines for the operation of the congress.

And:

The Supreme Leader stressed the need for all the sectors and units including the Party organizations at all levels, power organs and organs of the armed forces to regularly in time sum up the results of the work so as not to deviate from the implementation of the Party’s basic lines, policies and decisions. He also said that they should encourage and develop good successes, overcome shortcomings and take rectification measures at the double and thus achieve new progress in advancing the revolution and construction and in strengthening the Party.

This fits well with the simultaneous announcement of another five-year plan for economic development. This also doesn’t mark a return to central planning, necessarily, but rather, the state asserting its right to set forth the main guidelines of economic development. The last one, adopted in 2016, was subsequently abandoned, and we should also not expect this coming strategy to be entirely written in stone.

The agenda item about the central auditing commission is also interesting. In these contexts, auditing often entails the state scrutinizing the books of various organs, looking for off-the-books resources and other ways to bring in more cash to the state.

An agenda item for the central auditing commission is nothing unique in itself, but substantially, it may relate to the current push of the state to take in more resources from wherever they can be found.

Over the past couple of years or so, as its funds have run increasingly low, the state has been pushing private and semi-private economic actors to hand over more of their resources to the government. Strengthening auditing practices may be a way of institutionalizing this push more regarding finances related to the Party.

(Update 20/8/20: I clarified the text somewhat above about the central auditing commission after this came up in a twitter discussion.)

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North Korean coal market routines changing

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

That’s essentially the story told by Daily NK here, and it appears like some mines may be successfully cutting out a middleman:

“Coal mined from state-run coal mines is supposed to go to an agency in charge of distribution, but [these days] not all of the coal is being supplied to the appropriate agency,” the source said. “Coal mines have to make a profit to feed the large number of workers they have, so they decided to start doing business directly with the procurement and sales departments at companies.”

Some companies that received coal from this distribution system now have to buy the coal directly from coal mines, the source said, adding, “In these cases, coal mines sell the coal at a cheaper price than the usual market price.”

Some trading companies have reportedly begun working with railway authorities to transport large amounts of coal by train rather than by truck.

“They are making efforts to reduce distribution costs by going to coal-scarce areas and selling coal there while buying and then reselling that region’s specialty goods,” the source said.

“Of course there is still wholesale selling of coal taking place among merchants located near the mines. Since coal is a commodity that is always in demand, buyers are flocking to the markets,” the source added.

Generally, coal in North Korea used to be sold at around KPW 300,000 per ton, but by the end of 2017, after the implementation of more severe international sanctions, the price had plummeted to around KPW 200,000. Yet, due to smuggling and other factors, coal prices crept back up to KPW 290,000 per ton last year, according to the source.

(Source: Kang Mi Jin, “State-owned coal mines are finding new ways to make money,” Daily NK, June 11th, 2020.)

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Autarky, self-reliance and urban privilege in Kim Jong-un’s June politburo remarks

Monday, June 8th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

On Monday June 8th, the Korean Worker’s Party politburo held a meeting. Kim Jong-un made several interesting remarks about the overall state of the economy, as Reuters reported here. The full Rodong Sinmun recounting of Kim’s statements is interesting and worth reading in its entirety. More and more state rhetoric seems to presume autarky as the default approach for economic development which is somewhat worrying, but perhaps just a reflection of where the country’s economic conditions stand as of now.

It’s also interesting to note Kim’s mention of the situation specifically in Pyongyang. Perhaps he means to signal to the political elites that he is looking out for their interests and quality of life, and that things will improve. What that means for the rest of the country is less clear. Pyongyang is symbolically important, but the growing disparity between the capital city and the rest of the country should concern the government.

Rodong’s rendition below, in both the original Korean and an English translation.

Political Bureau of C.C., WPK Meets under Guidance of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un

The 13th Political Bureau meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) was held on June 6 and 7 at a time when the entire Party, the whole country and all the people have vigorously turned out in the general offensive for glorifying the 75th founding anniversary of the WPK as the great festival of victors true to the great idea and strategy of the Party for making a breakthrough head-on and its action program.

Kim Jong Un, chairman of the WPK, chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and supreme commander of the armed forces of the DPRK, was present in the meeting.

Attending the meeting were members and alternate members of the Political Bureau of the C.C., WPK.

Vice-premiers of the Cabinet, some chairpersons of provincial party committees and leading officials of committees and ministries were there as observers.

Upon authorization of the Political Bureau of the C.C., WPK, Supreme Leader of the Party, state and armed forces Kim Jong Un presided over the meeting.

The meeting discussed in depth some crucial issues arising in further developing the self-sufficient economy of the country and improving the standard of people’s living.

Discussed as the first agenda items were some urgent problems arising in developing the chemical industry of the country in a well-defined framework.

He indicated orientation and way to reconstruct the chemical industry as required by Juche and modernity and put it on a track of sustainable development.

Repeatedly stressing that the chemical industry is the foundation of industry and a major thrust front of the national economy, he recollected that the Party, regarding the chemical and metallurgical industries as twin pillars of the self-supporting economy, set forth the policy of founding the C1 chemical industry to suit to the specific conditions of the country and to meet the world’s trend at its Seventh Congress and has since pushed forward with the work.

Recalling that the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea discussed the issues of establishing the C1 chemical industry and of building the fertilizer production capacity as core points in developing the chemical industry, the Supreme Leader clarified the plan and will of waging a bold struggle to put the overall chemical industry on a Juche and modern basis.

The premier of the Cabinet made a report on the review by the scientific group of the scientific and technical guarantee and economic efficiency of founding C1 chemical industry, and the present situation of the chemical industry.

The meeting heard suggestions on earlier completion of founding C1 chemical industry and had in-depth discussion of issues of opening a broad avenue to the development of chemical industry.

The chemical industrial field has to be activated first to propel and guarantee the economic development of the country, the Supreme Leader said, setting forth immediate tasks for propping up the chemical industry as a whole.

He stressed the need to give top priority to increasing the capacity for producing fertilizer, to begin with, in the chemical industrial field and push forward this work and put particular emphasis on promptly settling scientific and technological issues of founding potassic fertilizer industry based on our own raw materials.

Indicating orientation and immediate goal for energizing existent chemical factories, the Supreme Leader pointed out the need to conduct in a far-sighted way the work to explore chemical industrial field based on new raw materials.

He underlined the need to actively propel the work to perfect and update in a modern way the structure of sectors of the chemical industry.

He clarified that the new structure of sectors of Juche-based chemical industry should be multi-lateral production system, which is saving energy, labor and natural resources and which is technology-intensive and development-and-creation-oriented, that produces nonstop all kinds of chemical goods enough to meet demand thoroughly based on locally available raw and other materials.

He called for building reliable national level scientific research force, actively pushing forward the development of catalyst and laying a material foundation for developing catalyst technology, catalyst industry.

He stressed the importance to carry out substantial work to build talent force in chemical industrial field and to bring up a greater number of talents of practical type who are development-and-creation-oriented in the field of education.

As the second agenda item the meeting discussed immediate issues of ensuring living conditions for citizens in the capital city.

Pointing out in detail the issues that have to be urgently settled to ensure living conditions of citizens in the city, the Supreme Leader stressed to take strong state measures for ensuring the living conditions of people including the construction of dwelling houses.

Important issues for settling issues arising as regards the living conditions of Pyongyang citizens were discussed at the meeting.

A resolution on the first and second agenda items was adopted with full approval at the meeting.

As the third agenda item, the meeting examined before ratification the suggestion on modifying some rule-related matters arising in the present party work and reflecting them in a draft amendment to the party rules.

The fourth agenda item was an organizational matter.

There was a by-election of an alternate member of the Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee. Kim Yong Hwan was by-elected as an alternate member of the Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee.

Members and alternate members of the WPK Central Committee were recalled and elected to fill vacancies. Ko Kil Son, Kim Jong Nam, Song Yong Gon were by-elected as members from alternate members while Ri Jae Nam, Kwon Thae Yong and Kwon Yong Jin as members of the WPK Central Committee.

Rim Yong Chol, Kang Il Sop, Sin In Yong, Ri Kyong Chon, Kim Ju Sam, Kim Jong Chol, Choe Kwang Jun, Yang Myong Chol, Kim Yong Chol, Pak Man Ho were by-elected as alternate members of the WPK Central Committee.

The 13th Political Bureau meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK marked an important occasion in further consolidating the foundation and potential of the self-supporting national economy, giving top priority to the people’s dignity, rights and interests under the uplifted banner of people-first principle and opening up a broad avenue to improving the standard of people’s living to meet the requirements of the prevailing situation of the revolution.

(Source: Political News Team, “Political Bureau of C.C., WPK Meets under Guidance of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un,” Rodong Sinmun, June 8th, 2020.)

조선로동당 중앙위원회 제7기 제13차 정치국회의 진행

우리 당의 위대한 정면돌파사상과 전략, 실천강령을 높이 받들고 당창건 75돐을 승리자의 대축전으로 빛내이기 위한 전당적, 전국가적, 전인민적총진군의 불길이 세차게 타번지고있는 속에서 조선로동당 중앙위원회 제7기 제13차 정치국회의가 6월 7일에 진행되였다.

조선로동당 위원장이시며 조선민주주의인민공화국 국무위원회 위원장이시며 조선민주주의인민공화국무력 최고사령관이신 우리 당과 국가, 무력의 최고령도자 김정은동지께서 정치국회의에 참가하시였다.

정치국회의에는 조선로동당 중앙위원회 정치국 위원, 후보위원들이 참가하였다.

내각부총리들과 일부 도당위원장들, 위원회, 성 책임일군들이 방청으로 참가하였다.

당중앙위원회 정치국의 위임에 따라 김정은동지께서 회의를 사회하시였다.

정치국회의에서는 나라의 자립경제를 더욱 발전시키며 인민들의 생활을 향상시키는데서 나서는 일련의 중대한 문제들이 심도있게 토의되였다.

첫째의정으로 나라의 화학공업을 전망성있게 발전시키는데서 나서는 당면한 몇가지 문제에 대하여 토의하였다.

경애하는 최고령도자동지께서는 화학공업의 구조를 주체화, 현대화의 요구에 맞게 개조하고 지속적인 발전궤도에 올려세우기 위한 방향과 방도를 밝혀주시였다.

경애하는 최고령도자동지께서는 화학공업은 공업의 기초이고 인민경제의 주타격전선이라고 거듭 강조하시면서 우리 당이 화학공업을 금속공업과 함께 자립경제의 쌍기둥으로 내세우고 당 제7차대회에서 우리 나라의 실정과 세계적추세에 맞게 탄소하나화학공업을 창설할데 대한 방침을 제시한 후 그 사업을 본격화하여온데 대하여 말씀하시였다.

경애하는 최고령도자동지께서는 당중앙위원회 제7기 제5차전원회의에서 화학공업발전의 핵심사항으로 탄소하나화학공업창설과 비료생산능력조성문제를 취급한데 대하여 언급하시면서 화학공업전반의 주체화, 현대화를 실현하기 위한 투쟁을 통이 크게 벌려나갈 구상과 의지를 표명하시였다.

회의에서는 내각총리가 탄소하나화학공업창설의 과학기술적담보와 경제적효과성을 재검토심의한 과학그루빠의 사업정형과 화학공업부문의 현 실태에 대한 보고를 하였다.

회의에서는 탄소하나화학공업창설을 다그쳐 끝내기 위한 의견들을 청취하고 화학공업발전의 새 활로를 열어놓기 위한 문제들을 진지하게 협의하였다.

경애하는 최고령도자동지께서는 나라의 경제발전을 추동하고 담보하기 위해서는 화학공업부문이 먼저 들고일어나야 한다고 하시면서 화학공업전반을 추켜세우기 위한 당면과업들을 제시하시였다.

경애하는 최고령도자동지께서는 화학공업부문에서 무엇보다도 비료생산능력을 늘이기 위한 사업을 최우선적인 문제로 보고 대하며 이 사업을 강하게 밀고나갈데 대하여서와 우리의 원료에 의거한 카리비료공업을 창설하는데서 나서는 과학기술적문제들을 시급히 해결할데 대하여 특별히 강조하시였다.

경애하는 최고령도자동지께서는 현존화학공장들을 활성화하기 위한 방향과 당면목표를 제시하시고 새로운 원료에 의거하는 화학공업분야를 개척하기 위한 사업도 전망성있게 벌려나갈데 대하여 지적하시였다.

경애하는 최고령도자동지께서는 화학공업의 부문구조를 완비하고 현대적으로 개건하기 위한 사업을 적극 추진할데 대하여 강조하시였다.

경애하는 최고령도자동지께서는 국내원료와 자재에 철저히 의거하여 각종 화학제품들을 수요대로 중단없이 생산해내는 에네르기절약형, 로력절약형, 자원절약형, 기술집약형, 개발창조형의 다방면적인 생산체계를 갖추는것이 주체화된 화학공업의 새 부문구조로 되여야 한다고 천명하시였다.

경애하는 최고령도자동지께서는 국가적인 과학연구력량을 튼튼히 꾸리고 탄소하나화학공업에 쓰이는 촉매개발을 적극 다그치면서 촉매기술, 촉매공업을 발전시키기 위한 물질적토대를 갖출데 대하여 지적하시였다.

경애하는 최고령도자동지께서는 화학공업부문의 인재력량을 꾸리기 위한 사업을 착실히 해나가며 교육부문에서 개발창조형의 인재, 실천형의 인재들을 더 많이 키워낼데 대하여 말씀하시였다.

정치국회의에서는 둘째의정으로 수도시민들의 생활보장에서 나서는 당면한 문제들이 토의되였다.

경애하는 최고령도자동지께서는 수도시민들의 생활보장에서 시급히 해결해야 할 문제들을 구체적으로 지적하시면서 살림집건설을 비롯한 인민생활보장과 관련한 국가적인 대책을 강하게 세울데 대하여 강조하시였다.

회의에서는 평양시민들의 생활에서 제기되는 문제들을 풀기 위한 중요문제들이 토의되였다.

정치국회의에서는 첫째의정과 둘째의정에 대한 결정서가 전원일치로 채택되였다.

정치국회의에서는 셋째의정으로 현행당사업에서 제기되는 일련의 규약상문제들을 일부 수정하고 당규약개정안에 반영할데 대한 의견을 심의비준하였다.

정치국회의에서는 넷째의정으로 조직문제를 토의하였다.

당중앙위원회 정치국 후보위원을 보선하였다.

김영환동지를 당중앙위원회 정치국 후보위원으로 보선하였다.

당중앙위원회 위원, 후보위원들을 소환 및 보선하였다.

고길선동지, 김정남동지, 송영건동지를 당중앙위원회 후보위원에서 위원으로, 리재남동지, 권태영동지, 권영진동지를 당중앙위원회 위원으로 보선하였다.

림영철동지, 강일섭동지, 신인영동지, 리경천동지, 김주삼동지, 김정철동지, 최광준동지, 양명철동지, 김영철동지, 박만호동지를 당중앙위원회 후보위원으로 보선하였다.

조선로동당 중앙위원회 제7기 제13차 정치국회의는 조성된 혁명정세의 요구에 맞게 자립경제의 토대와 잠재력을 더욱 튼튼히 다지며 인민대중제일주의의 기치높이 인민의 존엄과 권익을 최우선, 절대시하고 인민생활향상의 활로를 열어나가는데서 중요한 계기로 된다.

(Source: Ponsajŏngch’ibodoban, “Chosŏllodongdang Chungangwiwŏnhoe Che7ki che13ch’a Chŏngch’igukhoeŭi Chinhaeng,” Rodong Sinmun, June 8th, 2020.)

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North Korea’s 2020 parliamentary session and the budget: the main points

Tuesday, April 14th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This past Sunday, the 12th of April, the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly met at Mansudae Assembly Hall, the grand, majestic room where the assembly sits. Out of the six items on the SPA’s agenda, at least three – half – dealt in some shape or form with the economy, and arguably, some others could also fit into that category:

The agenda items of the Third Session of the 14th SPA of the DPRK were decided at the session:

1. On adoption of the law of the DPRK on recycling resources

2. On adoption of the law of the DPRK on tele-education

3. On adoption of the law of the DPRK on providing living conditions for discharged officers

4. On the work of the Cabinet of the DPRK for Juche 108 (2019) and its tasks of Juche 109 (2020)

5. On implementation of the state budget for Juche 108 (2019) and the state budget for Juche 109 (2020).

6. Organizational matter.

(Source: “Third Session of 14th SPA of DPRK Held,” Korean Central News Agency, April 13, 2020.)

I include the Cabinet report given the strong emphasis over the past years of the cabinet’s leading role in economic management. A separate KCNA-report from the same day, “Report on Work of DPRK Cabinet for Juche 108 (2019) and Its Tasks for Juche 109 (2020),” summarized this report of the cabinet’s work. I paste it here with some annotating comments. Yes, the whole first paragraph below is one sentence:

According to the report on the work of the Cabinet delivered at the Third Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly(SPA) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), last year the Cabinet organized a drive of putting the overall national economy on a new higher stage with a main emphasis put on accomplishing the sustained economic development, ensuring the local production of equipment, raw and other materials and revitalizing production by boosting the capability of independent development of the country, true to the important tasks set forth by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in his report at the Fourth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and in his historic policy speech at the First Session of the 14th SPA.

None of these phrases (“local production of equipment” etc) are new or surprising, and the most notable fact is perhaps the absence of anything unusual in such an unusual time (coronavirus, sanctions).

The report said that last year all sectors and units of the national economy carried out the gross yearly industrial production value at 108 percent, and ministries, national institutions, the city and county people’s committees and industrial establishments over-fulfilled their national economic plan.

The electrical power industrial sector carried out the hydraulic power generation plan at 103 percent and made sure that production was increased by properly carrying on the repair and readjustment of generating equipment.

Now this is interesting – repairing and readjusting could either mean a claim that the industry is doing fine even without imports of Chinese machine parts and the like, because it can simply repair and readjust what’s already there. Or, it’s a claim that in fact, despite sanctions, the country’s industries are able to replenish whatever equipment it needs to stay afloat.

The thermal power plants provided a guarantee for stabilizing the electric power production without relying on heavy oil.

The coal industrial field respectively showed 23 percent and 22 percent increases in the coal production and the supply of coal for thermal power generation over last year, and the large-scale coal mines rich in deposits and with favorable mining conditions provided a foundation to increase coal production.

In the field of the metallurgical industry the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex has shown 22 percent, 2 percent and 37 percent increases in the production of pig iron, steel and rolled steel over last year. The chemical industry achieved large growth in the production of chemical fertilizer, carbide and caustic soda.

Of course, any claims of over-fulfillment of quotas and the like should be taken with a grain of salt, as such claims are classical in North Korean propaganda regardless of their foundation in reality (the genre was born in the Soviet Union). Still, trying out a charitable reading, there are theoretical ways in which claims over over-fulfillment could technically be true, particularly in these sectors. We know nothing about the revenue of these products, for example, and mines and factories could churn out production in great magnitudes but with questionable value when the products can’t be exported or sold at a profit at all. Because coal prices have dropped so much under sanctions, industry could well be powered at a lower cost, but the value of this is, again, questionable.

[…]

On the agricultural front the peak-year level was exceeded in the grain production even under unfavorable weather conditions.

A repetition of the claim of a bumper harvest last year, which remains highly unlikely, as I argued here.

A fishing campaign for supplying more fish to the people was launched in the fishery sector, and the fishing was put on a higher scientific level with the help of the updated aid system for detecting fishing ground.

Again, the sector may certainly produce and supply more, but its incomes will still be lower than they would be without sanctions.

The field of the land and environment protection turned the important projects including the Wonsan Kalma coastal tourist area and the Yangdok Hot Spring Resort into thick woodland and greenery and face-lifted all roads including Pyongyang-Hyangsan and Pyongyang-Wonsan Motorways.

A hint that investment continued in the tourism industry, and that the state expects this industry to blossom in the future, despite the currently dire situation. By extension, perhaps also a suggestion of expected solid economic ties and exchange with China.

The report contains a great deal of interesting detail, but in the interest of time, I’ll skip ahead to the most central parts (my own emphasis):

The report emphasized that all the achievements made last year clearly proved once again that as long as there is the wise guidance provided by the Party, we can live on our own and open up the road of our own development and prosperity no matter how desperately the enemies may try.

The report also said that serious mistakes were found in the work of the Cabinet last year.

They taught a serious lesson that if the officials in charge of providing economic guidance fail to fulfill their duty, it would be impossible to successfully attain the goals of economic construction set forth by the Party, the report said.

It clarified that we face heavy yet responsible tasks to unconditionally and thoroughly carry out the economic construction tasks set forth at the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK under the uplifted slogan “Let’s Break through Head-on All Barriers to Our Advance!”

It went on:

The Cabinet will put a main emphasis on organizing the economic work on the principle of subordinating everything to the health and safety of the people, conducting courageous head-on breakthrough in the spirit of achieving prosperity by dint of self-reliance, and fully meeting the needs for the national economy and for the people’s living by readjusting the economic foundation of the country and by fully tapping the production potential, in order to thoroughly carry out the tasks set forth in the joint resolution of the WPK Central Committee, State Affairs Commission and the Cabinet.

The Cabinet will rationally readjust the economic work system and order and boost its role as the organizer of the state economy.

It will put efforts into holding full control of the resources and fund sources of the state, and securing financial ability and execution power capable of managing and operating the country’s economy in a unified manner.

There are some key phrases below as well, but these two paragraphs are especially noteworthy. The message seems fairly clear that the state’s role in the economy needs to get stronger, and that while independent management methods may certainly be encouraged, the state is in charge. This message is familiar from Kim Jong-un’s December CC Plenum speech.

It will establish a strict discipline for the state development and use of the underground natural resources that are of strategic significance in the state economic development, and also take strong measures to protect and multiply aquatic resources.

It will bring about innovation in the work system, order and method on the principle of ensuring smooth transaction in the overall trade, and thoroughly guarantee the economic benefits of the country through the application of strict discipline and order in the import and export.

Perhaps both a reference to easing some rules and regulations for trade, while also combatting the rampant trade deficit?

[…]

The coal industrial sector will fully meet the demand for coal from several fields of the national economy including electricity, metal and chemical industries.

Note the absence here of any reference to coal exports.

[..]

The light industrial field will expand the variety of daily necessities and boost their quality. It, regarding the local production of raw and other materials as the lifeline, will rely on the locally available raw and other materials as much as possible for the production of consumer goods, put efforts into the development of local industry and contribute to the improvement of people’s standard of living.

Making consumer goods production and supply more local, and less reliant on imports, has been one of the chief goals through Kim Jong-un’s tenure. Judging by, for example, this recent report about consumer choice in kitchen items, it seems to be going quite well.

The Cabinet, corresponding to its position and duty as the economic command, will ensure the definite provision of unified operation and command for implementing the economic policies of the Party, and guarantee the meticulous economic organization and persevering practices and thus fulfill its responsibility and duty in glorifying this year marking the 75th founding anniversary of the Party as a year of victory to be specially recorded in the history of the country, the report stressed.

The report ends with one final emphasis on the Cabinet, and thus, the state, and not grassroots, independent actors, as the main holders of power in the economic realm. “The economic command” is about as clear of an expression as you could imagine. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the state will try to curb the market system anytime soon, but it will continue to subvert market forces into its own institutions where they can be more easily controlled and generate cash to the state.

The above is just a brief overview and quick read of the budget report. For more on the proportions and overall economic conditions that the report speaks of, check out Ruediger Frank’s recent 38 North article on the SPA session as a whole.

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Politburo meets, but SPA postponed (till following Sunday)

Sunday, April 12th, 2020

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The SPA was expected to meet this past Friday. It didn’t. (Update 13/4/: it instead met on the following Sunday.) Instead, the politburo held a meeting to discuss measures the SPA would be adopting. There were scant but clear references to economic affairs (highlighted below), though the KCNA report is very vague. NK News suggests the SPA may instead convene Monday.

It adopted the joint resolution of the Central Committee of the WPK, the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK and the Cabinet of the DPRK “On more thoroughly taking national measures for protecting the life and safety of our people from the worldwide epidemic disease”.

The joint resolution detailed the goals of continuously intensifying the nationwide emergency anti-epidemic services and pushing ahead with the economic construction, increasing national defence capability and stabilizing the people’s livelihood this year, and indicated the tasks facing every field and every unit including Party and government organs and working people’s organizations and armed forces organs and ways of carrying them out.

It studied and approved “On the execution of the state budget for Juche 108 (2019) and the state budget for Juche 109 (2020)”, the second agenda which is to be presented to the Third Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly.

(Source: Political Bureau of C.C., WPK Meets under Guidance of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, Korean Central News Agency,” 12/4/2020.)

Update 13/4/2020: the SPA was held on Sunday instead. KCNA:

The third Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was held at the Mansudae Assembly Hall on Sunday.

The SPA deputies attended the session.

Seen on the platform were Choe Ryong Hae, member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), first vice-chairman of the State Affairs Commission (SAC) of the DPRK and president of the Presidium of the SPA, and Pak Pong Ju, member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee, vice-chairman of the SAC of the DPRK and vice-chairman of the WPK Central Committee.

Also seen there was Kim Jae Ryong, member of the Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee, member of the SAC of the DPRK and premier of the Cabinet.

The platform was also taken by Ri Il Hwan, Choe Hwi, Ri Pyong Chol, Kim Tok Hun, Kim Yong Chol and members of the SAC of the DPRK and the Presidium of the SPA.

The chairman and vice-chairpersons of the SPA took their seats.

The opening address was made by Chairman Pak Thae Song.

The agenda items of the Third Session of the 14th SPA of the DPRK were decided at the session:

1. On adoption of the law of the DPRK on recycling resources

2. On adoption of the law of the DPRK on tele-education

3. On adoption of the law of the DPRK on providing living conditions for discharged officers

4. On the work of the Cabinet of the DPRK for Juche 108 (2019) and its tasks of Juche 109 (2020)

5. On implementation of the state budget for Juche 108 (2019) and the state budget for Juche 109 (2020).

6. Organizational matter.

The first, second and third agenda items were discussed at the session.

Deputy Thae Hyong Chol, vice-president of the Presidium of the SPA, made a report on the three agenda items.

He referred to the importance and significance of the laws to be discussed and adopted at the session, and explained the chapters of the laws.

He laid the adoption of the three laws before the SPA.

Ordinance of the SPA of the DPRK “On adoption of the law of the DPRK on recycling resources “, “On adoption of the law of the DPRK on tele-education” and “On adoption of the law of the DPRK on providing living conditions for discharged officers” were adopted with unanimous approbation at the session.

There was a discussion on the basis of an in-depth study of the reports on the fourth and the fifth agenda items.

The speakers said that the work of the Cabinet and the execution of the state budget for last year were correctly summed up, and that the tasks of the Cabinet for this year were clearly set and the state budget was properly worked out in the direction of implementing the decisions adopted at the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK and the joint resolution adopted at the Meeting of the Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee. They voiced full support and approval.

In their speeches they analyzed and reviewed the successes, experience, mistakes and lessons in the work of their fields and units last year and referred to the methods of opening a broad avenue to the socialist construction and propping up the self-supporting economic power.

There adopted decision of the SPA of the DPRK “Report on the work of the Cabinet of the DPRK and on approving the implementation of the state budget for Juche 108 (2019)” and ordinance of the SPA of the DPRK “On state budget of the DPRK for Juche 109 (2020)”.

The session discussed the sixth agenda item.

At the request of Deputy Choe Ryong Hae, first vice-chairman of the SAC and president of the Presidium of the SPA upon authorization of the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK, Deputy Choe Pu Il and Deputy No Kwang Chol were recalled from the membership of the SAC.

Also recalled were Ri Su Yong, Thae Jong Su and Ri Yong Ho.

Deputies Ri Pyong Chol, Kim Hyong Jun, Kim Jong Gwan, Ri Son Gwon and Kim Jong Ho were by-elected as members of the SAC.

Upon authorization of the Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee, Deputy Ko Kil Son was by-elected as the secretary general of the Presidium of the SPA and Deputy Kim Yong Hwan as a member of the Presidium of the SPA.

Members of the Cabinet were newly appointed.

Upon authorization of the WPK Central Committee, Deputy Yang Sung Ho was appointed as vice-premier, Deputy Kim Chol Su as minister of Natural Resources Development, Kim Jong Nam as minister of Machine-building Industry, and Ri Song Hak as minister of Light Industry.

Chairmen of the Subcommittees of the SPA were recalled and by-elected.

Deputy Kim Jong Ho was by-elected as chairman of the Legislation Committee of the SPA, Deputy Kim Tok Hun as chairman of the Budget Committee and Deputy Kim Hyong Jun as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Chairman Pak Thae Song made a closing address.

(Source: “Third Session of 14th SPA of DPRK Held,” Korean Central News Agency, 13/4/2020.)

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