The just concluded ruling party congress in Pyongyang once again illustrated the extent of the pressure on the North Korean economy and regime, amid the pandemic, international sanctions and the deadlock in nuclear negotiations with Washington, experts say.
Leader Kim Jong Un has repeatedly apologized for economic mismanagement by promising prosperity to come while being named the party’s general secretary, a change of title intended according to analysts to consolidate his authority.
But this congress theoretically organized every five years has given no sign that the regime intends to open its economy to improve the situation of its citizens, or change the status quo with Washington. On the contrary, Mr. Kim sent the next US President Joe Biden the message that Pyongyang intends to continue developing its banned military programs, if Washington does not make any concessions.
The eight-day convention ended on Tuesday, one week before Mr. Biden took office.
Analysts believe Pyongyang is well aware that the development of its economy is contingent on easing sanctions. But the regime shows no willingness to reverse its nuclear and ballistic programs which are the reason for these international retaliatory measures.
Mr. Kim, whose relationship with Donald Trump had calmed down after the initial insults, presented the United States as North Korea’s “main enemy” and pledged to continue its nuclear program, dangling the threat of nuclear submarines.
“Things are bad”
Still, for him, alternating with the White House is a challenge because Mr. Biden is closely associated with the doctrine of “strategic patience” of the Obama era, and his presidency announces the return of a more orthodox American diplomacy, far from the summits without a future that Mr. Trump was calling for.
“It is obvious that the North Koreans are doing what they have always done,” observes Andrei Lankov, director of the Korea Risk Group. “Create a crisis from scratch, raise tensions, remind Joe Biden that they exist”.
But Pyongyang cannot afford a major act of provocation, such as a nuclear test or an intercontinental missile fire, not least because it would deeply irritate its neighbor and main ally, China.
Before thousands of delegates gathered in a huge hall, Kim Jong Un admitted errors in the implementation of the economic plan “in almost all areas”, presenting the past five years as the “worst” period for his country.
“One of the possible reasons for this admission is that the country is in a desperate situation and can no longer really hide or deny a truth that is visible to all,” said Soo Kim, former CIA analyst today at the RAND Corporation.
North Korea was quick to close its borders last year when the coronavirus broke out in China, a move that has been more effective than any sanction package in further isolating the regime, as it has resulted in reduce its trade with Beijing to a fraction of what it used to be.
“Instead of covering up this sad reality, the regime has chosen to admit that things are bad,” says Soo Kim.
Fear of competition
But the party felt that the best response to planning failures was more planning.
Since he inherited power when his father died in 2011, Kim Jong Un has accepted a very relative relaxation of state control over the economy, allowing the development of private initiatives of very modest size. This has contributed to the emergence of a semblance of a middle class in Pyongyang, and helped enrich the elite with the right connections.
But concluding the congress, Kim said the party and government should reaffirm their control over the new five-year plan, namely “to restore and strengthen the system under which the economy operates under state guidance.” “.
“In the short term”, any reform of the market is excluded, analyzes Harry Kazianis, expert at the Center for the National Interest. Kim is “afraid of any form of dissent,” he continues. “He knows that the merchant class has become powerful in North Korea, and he will not tolerate any competition in the exercise of his power.”
For some experts, the appointment of Mr. Kim to the post of secretary general of the party also aims to strengthen his power by bringing him closer to the figure of his father and predecessor at the head of the country, Kim Jong Il, who was eternal secretary general.