Kim Jong-un’s dire warning on economy hints at growing crisis

SEOUL • Kim Jong-un said North Korea’s development goals have been “seriously delayed”, a rare acknowledgment that shows the country’s already anaemic economy is under severe strain from sanctions, flooding and the pandemic.

At the first gathering of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee in eight months, Kim said the country “faced unexpected and inevitable challenges in various aspects”, state media said yesterday.

“Planned attainment of the goals for improving the national economy has been seriously delayed and the people’s living standard has not been improved remarkably,” Kim said, according to the Korean Central News Agency

The statement was the latest in a series by Kim complaining about the pace of key policy goals, a striking admission for a regime built on the infallibility of dynastic rule. In recent months, Kim has lashed out at cadres over what he saw as lax virus management and blasted the people responsible constructing his showcase Pyongyang General Hospital, saying they were flouting party policies and being “careless” with spending.

The North Korean leader also pledged to unveil a new five-year economic development plan at a party congress in January. The last meeting in 2016 of what is ostensibly North Korea’s highest-level decision-making assembly came after a 36-year gap in which former leader Kim Jong-il ignored regulations in the Workers’ Party to hold them every five years.

Key party meetings often lead to a shake-up of cadres, which could mean new powers for prominent officials such as his sister, Kim Yo-jong, and a purge of others. At a Politburo meeting last week, Kim sacked the premier he appointed a little more than a year ago, removed the southern border city of Kaesong from virus lockdown and said he would not accept foreign food aid because of the risk posed by the pandemic.

Jong-un has started sharing some authority with his sister even though he retains absolute power, South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told reporters after being briefed by the country’s spy agency yesterday. Yo-jong is responsible for relations with South Korea and the US, said Ha, who is a prominent member of Parliament’s intelligence committee.

While state media made no mention of the US-led sanctions regime on the country, Pyongyang has repeatedly lashed out at the campaign. In December, Jong-un similarly told the Central Committee that “the conditions of the national economy have not turned better”, adding “the role of the state as the organiser of the economic work has not been enhanced”.

Jong-un is facing difficulties on various fronts, and a reported health scare earlier this year raised questions about succession. His nuclear discussions with US President Donald Trump have ground to a halt without him winning any sanctions relief, and the US and South Korea this week kicked off joint military drills.

The economy was already under pressure from his decision to shut borders in January due to the coronavirus, which slammed the brakes on its minuscule legal trade. This year, the troubles could send the economy into its biggest contraction since 1997, according to Fitch Solutions. — Bloomberg