[News analysis] Signs of N. Korea’s struggles amid the triple whammy of COVID, flooding, and sanctions

Posted on : 2020-08-21 18:53 KST Modified on : 2020-08-21 18:53 KST
Kim Jong-un announces to hold WPK’s 8th Congress next January to devise economic strategy
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over the 6th Plenary Session of the 7th WPK Central Committee in Pyongyang on Aug. 19. (KCNA/Yonhap News)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over the 6th Plenary Session of the 7th WPK Central Committee in Pyongyang on Aug. 19. (KCNA/Yonhap News)

As North Korea grapples simultaneously with the three crises of international sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic, and serious flooding, Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, announced that the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) would hold its 8th Congress next January. A resolution to hold the congress, which was adopted by the 6th Plenary Session of the 7th WPK Central Committee on Aug. 19, explained that the congress was necessary because the country had fallen far short on its economic growth and development goals and because there had been no clear improvement in the public livelihood.

The resolution also said that Kim Jong-un would unveil a new five-year plan for national economic development during the congress. All this implies that economic issues are the chief motivation for holding the congress.

WPK congresses are hugely important in North Korea. Article 11 of the North Korean Constitution states that all important activities are to take place under the party’s leadership, and Article 22 of the party’s charter states that the party’s congress is its supreme leadership organ. That makes it unusual for the North Korean leader to officially and openly state that economic goals have not been met while announcing a plan to convene a party congress. That’s both proof of the economic difficulties facing North Korea and “an expression of Kim Jong-un’s distinctive pragmatic and empirical determination not to ignore reality,” in the words of a former high-ranking official in the South Korean government.

The 8th WPK Congress comes four years and eight months after the 7th WPK Congress, which took place on May 6-9, 2016. That’s the shortest interval between WPK congresses with the exception of the two years and five months separating the 2nd WPK Congress (Mar. 27-30, 1948) from the 1st WPK Congress (Oct. 10, 1945), at which the party’s establishment was declared.

At the 7th WPK Congress, Kim Jong-un reconfirmed the “two-track” line of economic and nuclear development while stating that the construction of a powerful economy was the basic task to which the party and state should focus all their energy. Kim also declared a five-year strategy for the state’s economic development, established economic development zones as his strategy for opening up the economy, and made official a Korean-style economic management method as his strategy for economic reform and marketization. The two-track line was later replaced with the new strategic line of concentrating all efforts on building the socialist economy on Apr. 20, 2018, shortly before summits with South Korea and with the US. But tough sanctions imposed by the UN and the US have prevented Kim’s economic development zones and his five-year plan for the state’s economic development from bearing fruit.

Therefore, Kim’s remarks suggest his determination to devise a new strategic plan for building a powerful economy that can overcome difficulties at home and abroad, in the form of the new five-year plan he has promised to unveil at the 8th WPK Congress. Considering that Kim declared a “frontal breakthrough offensive” in which the economy was the “main front” and the agricultural sector was the location of the “first strike” in the 6th Plenary Session of the 7th WPK Central Committee at the end of 2019, observers are curious to see the details of his new plan.

Congress was possibly scheduled to coincide with timing of next US president’s inauguration

The 8th WPK Congress is supposed to be held in January 2021, the same month when the next US president will be inaugurated. While some analysts think the congress’ schedule was decided with that inauguration in mind, multiple former high-ranking government officials think that’s reading too much into the timing. “It would be more appropriate to regard the congress as being convened since the five-year state economic development plan is coming to a close,” one official said.

It’s hard to definitively conclude what the political ramifications of the 8th WPK Congress may be. “We can’t assume that North Korea will remain aloof from the US until next January,” one former official said. Another official said that “the coverage in the Rodong Sinmun isn’t adequate to draw political implications.”

At any rate, there are no encouraging signs for inter-Korean relations. In addition to maintaining his ban on contact with South Korea in both the public and private domains, Kim recently stressed that the North should accept absolutely no external assistance in connection with flood damage. But it’s also notable that North Korea hadn’t made any official response to the South Korea-US command post exercise, which is being held on a reduced scale, as of Aug. 20, the third day of the exercise.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles