Archive for the ‘Political economy’ Category

Kim Jong-un’s claim of the “worst-ever situation”

Sunday, April 18th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Perhaps I am late to the game already (the long weekend here in Israel is to blame for that), but it has been puzzling to see the media reporting on Kim Jong-un’s claim that North Korea faces its “worst-ever” economic situation at the moment, under both international sanctions and a self-imposed border lockdown.

It seems that Kim’s words have been misinterpreted or lost in translation. Colleagues at 38 North have rightly and importantly pointed out that the original Korean-language statement is not nearly as drastic. This is often the case with KCNA articles and translated statements from North Korea:

In the vernacular report, however, this term read kuknanhan (극난한), which would be better translated as “very hard” or even “extremely difficult.”[2] North Korea’s English-language media sometimes omit passages or provide translations that are different from the vernacular text, and without analyzing years’ worth of data, it is impossible to conclude whether they do so deliberately, or if they are simply oversights.

It is clear, however, that Kim did not say “the worst-ever situation” at this event. Even if he had, the North Korean leader has made similar remarks in connection with the country’s current circumstances in recent months. For example, Kim’s opening address at the Eighth Party Congress in January referred to the past five years as a period of “unprecedented, worst-ever trials.”

None of this means that the situation is not bad. But “worst-ever” would be extremely drastic for a country where the failings of the economic system led to a famine in the 1990s and early 2000s that took the lives of between 600,000-1.5 million people. Today’s conditions simply aren’t grave enough to warrant such comparisons.

Precisely how difficult conditions are remains hard to tell. The Russian ambassador to North Korea recently gave an interview where he said that the country’s food situation is not at all catastrophic, and that there are no signs suggesting an ongoing famine. He is probably right, but at the same time, we should be careful not to extrapolate too much about the situation in the provinces, for example, based on an assessment of the store shelves in Pyongyang. The country’s society is highly stratified and its economy relatively fragmented. The situation in one locality may well be much more dire than in another.

At the same time, we should also be careful not to take Kim Jong-un at his word. What, except for Kim’s own statement, suggests that today’s situation is worse than the one in 1995, after both economic collapse and heavy flooding took a severe toll on the economy? Sure, things are incredibly messy right now, a view that both circumstances and data support. Kim’s own statement, not least, is another solid data point showing just how grim things appear to be. But famine, meaning large numbers of people dying from starvation or malnourishment, is simply a different dimensions. Let us hope that North Korea does not get there, neither now nor in the future.

There are reasons to believe that it will not. The market system, for its faults and flaws, is able to react to changes in supply and demand, unlike the state distribution system in the 1990s. Moreover, China would likely step in with serious quantities of food aid if the situation got truly disastrous. Many signs suggest that North Korea and China expect to resume and even expand trade in the short-term. Should a drastic need arise, China would likely increase humanitarian shipments as well, although it is far from certain.

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Are fears of market crackdowns in North Korea exaggerated?

Tuesday, March 30th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In a recent article at 38 North, North Korea economy scholars Eun-Ju Choi and Young Hui Kim argue that the rumors of the death of Kim Jong-un’s reformist policies are highly exaggerated. Their full article is available here. As someone who has written about the increasingly anti-market policy signals coming from the North Korean regime over the past two or so years, I’d like to add a couple of thoughts.

First, Choi and Kim make a very good point: we have in fact not seen much in the way of practical, tangible evidence of a market crackdown actually going on. Indeed, most of this evidence is anecdotal and small-scale: scattered news via Daily NK and other outlets. There are two things to note about this. One is that, unfortunately, this is often how the news flow from North Korea works. When we can sufficiently say what is a broad, overarching trend and what is scattered but few news reports is often only clear in hindsight. At this time of writing, I’d argue we have enough of this anecdotal evidence to confirm that something is going on, but we don’t yet know of the scale of the process. (One could of course regard the entire border closure as an anti-market policy measure, at least in part.)

Second, however, Choi and Kim’s main argument seems to be that the fruits of the first few years of Kim Jong-un’s policy experimentation still stand. That may well be true — to this date we have seen no wholesale repudiation of any of the policy changes enacted in the first few years of Kim’s tenure. At the same time, Choi and Kim seem to be banking on Kim and the North Korean government simply not implementing the policies set out at the 8th WPK congress and before. Looking at what the government has said that it’s going to do, the anti-market policy turn becomes overwhelmingly evident. Choi and Kim, I would argue, are doing a bit of cherry-picking in their reading of these policy changes, focusing disproportionately on interpreting the emphasis on, for example, the Cabinet’s role in the economy. But there are many, many more examples.

Still, I hope that Choi and Kim end up being right, and that myself and many others end up being wrong. Only time will tell.

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March 2021: North Korea’s skyrocketing corn prices

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Given the self-imposed border lockdown North Korea is under at the moment, the recent rise in food prices should come as no surprise. The precise factors are difficult to pin down, but whatever they are, there is some serious cause for concern.

The main reason is the rapid rise in the price of corn as of late. One Daily NK-source in North Korea attributes it to large-scale state purchases of corn for snacks manufacturing in honor of Kim Jong-il’s birthday on February 16th.

The article makes clear, however, that this is only a partial explanation. Indeed, looking at the price index, it’s clear that the rise started long before February. On November 15th last year, the average price for a kilo of corn was 1350 won. On February 23rd this year, the average price was 3137 won. That’s a rise of 135 percent in a relatively short period of time. Prices of corn have often risen in the beginning part of the year, but not by this much.

Average corn prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

Looking at individual cities, the rise is even more staggering. In Hyesan, where food prices tend to be higher in general, corn prices rose from 1450 won/kilo on November 15th last year to 3620/kilo on February 23rd. That’s an increase of 150 percent in only a few months.

Corn prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

Why is this a concerning development for corn prices specifically?

First, corn is, in the North Korean context, rice’s less desired sibling. Corn always makes up a significant part of the diet for a big proportion of the North Korean population. However, when food becomes more scarce, people switch over a larger portion of their diets to corn, since it gives more food for the same amount of money. So a rise in corn prices may be a signal of growing scarcity overall.

Second, even if a large proportion of the rise was indeed caused by increasing state purchases, this is also a troubling indicator for the state of the North Korean market for food. If state procurement for snacks manufacturing for one single day can impact prices so much, this suggests a market under considerable stress and volatility to begin with.

At the same time, rice prices have remained conspicuously low and stabile. Rice prices in the last observation in the price index are around their seasonal normal. I’d be careful to assume too much based on this, however. Rice prices are lower right now than around the same time last year. This may – and I want to stress how little we know for certain – indicate that they are in fact lower not because supply is stabile, but because demand is lower. More consumers switching over their consumption to cheaper foods such as corn would put downward pressure on rice prices.

Average rice prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

The current situation will only be possible to fully evaluate in a few weeks when we have more data points available. Suffice to say for now that, with all the caveats about the trappings of data from North Korea, the situation looks concerning.

Update March 16th, 2021: DailyNK recently published more info about the corn price situation, reporting that prices have stabilized in much of the country. Still, 3,000 KWP/kg, reported in “other inland regions” (than Hyesan), is high. It’s more than double the average price reported in Daily NK’s price index around one year ago.

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Continuity and change in North Korea-China relations

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The recent appointment of Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s ambassador to China hints at ambitions for greater economic exchange with China, as reported here. As Ri has a strong background in institutions in North Korea related to foreign trade, not least as the country’s trade minister and, later, vice premier in the country’s cabinet.

Above all, the appointment of Ri is interesting as a sign of continuity rather than change in North Korea’s external economic relations. At the moment, cross-border trade is in its deepest lull in many, many years, as a result of the North Korean government’s self-imposed border shutdown to protect against Covid-19. This border shutdown came on top of already harsh and heavy sanctions.

But this border shutdown, like other measures around the world related to Covid-19, has an expiration date. There’s been rife speculation that the border may reopen soon. And when it does, business will likely, at some point, return to the old normal of China being North Korea’s only meaningful source of economic exchange. The appointment of Ri is one data point to suggest this, but there are many other data points that show an increasingly close relationship between China and North Korea since 2018, after a lull in the preceding years of frequent North Korean missile tests and other destabilizing action. For example, North Korea and China and started expanding 12 of its 13 road or rail crossings only in 2020, despite the pandemic.

While all this may only amount to business as usual, it is interesting and noteworthy for several reasons. For one, North Korea’s previous five-year economic strategy, launched in 2016 and subsequently abandoned, reportedly sought trade diversification away from China as one of its main objectives. North Korean publications have long lamented overt dependence on one single country for foreign trade, noting that it easily translates to political dependance as well.

At the same time, North Korea’s trade dependence on China has actually increased over the past few years. Xi Jinping has long since promised Kim Jong-un that China would fund cross-border infrastructure refurbishment and special economic zones along the border. For all the talk of the potential for economic exchange between North and South Korea back in the heyday of inter-Korean diplomacy between Moon and Kim, the fact remains that if any party is likely to expand its economic ties and influence in North Korea, it’s China.

So the recent appointment of Ri as ambassador to China should be seen as a sign of continuity, not change. Given the dire state of the economy, and the economic policy retrenchment drive as of late, North Korean policymakers are likely to stay cautious and safe in economic measures for some time to come. That is precisely the sort of move that strengthening ties and trade with China would be.

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North Korean government continues state control push

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

I’m not able to find the original article online at the moment, but Yonhap recaps an article from yesterday’s Rodong Sinmun stressing the importance of respecting government officials in the economic sector. This sounds like a fairly clear message to actors within the economy who might cause complications as plans for increased state control over the economy are implemented in practice: 

“We must respect economic officials in the administration and establish an orderly administrative system … so that administrative orders can be delivered down and accurately implemented without hesitation,” the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, said in an editorial.

“The performance of this year’s goals depends heavily on how economic officials organize and carry out their work,” the paper added.

The paper also called on party officials to play the role of a “rudder” in economic projects, while urging them to strive to “possess expertise” in economics and technology.

North Korean state media have stressed the central role of the Cabinet in achieving the North’s economic goals since the recent party congress.

(Source: “N.K. paper stresses ‘respect for economic officials’ to achieve new objectives,” Yonhap News, February 22nd, 2021.)

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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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North Korea, Blinken and aid

Sunday, January 24th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

During his confirmation hearing earlier this week, incoming secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, mentioned that humanitarian aid could be part of the Biden administration’s North Korea policy, although it isn’t clear precisely in what shape or form. Past administrations have often seen aid as part of the negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and much of what Blinken said is, as Joshua Pollack pointed out on twitter, all part of the same, oft-repeated talking points on North Korea policy that often changes names but practically remains the same.

The pandemic may have changed things, as North Korea’s economic situation has gone from very bad to worse. But humanitarian aid as a carrot, for today’s North Korea, seems like a non-starter. Today’s North Korea is not the North Korea of 1998. It has a leader with economic ambitions far beyond humanitarian grain deliveries from the US, UN and South Korea. The country’s food situation is dire and aid, not least in combatting the pandemic, would be highly useful. But it is difficult to imagine the North Korean government openly acknowledging that its stated economic ambitions are divorced from reality, and accepting humanitarian aid being part of any negotiations.

Time will tell, but putting aid into the mix seems based on a faulty reading of the regime’s current attitudes and priorities.

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

Wednesday, January 6th, 2021

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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