The 10th session of the Fourteenth National People’s Congress of the DPRK, is best known for its radical reversal of the policy on relations between North and South Korean. However, specialists may also find some of the other issues discussed during the session to be of interest.
In addition to the foreign policy issues discussed earlier, in his speech, “On the Next Tasks for the Prosperity and Development of the Republic and the Improvement of the People’s Welfare” Kim Jong-un made several crucial points. As noted by the KCNA, Kim “announced a new policy for the development of industry at the local level, which will have a revolutionary effect, eliminating the centuries-old backwardness of the regions.”
Kim Jong-un did not list the successes of 2023 in detail, but stated that they had already been “reviewed and evaluated in the 9th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and so there is no need to mention them again.”
Kim’s speech largely focused on improving the people’s living standards, including the establishment of an independent economy. He described the current year as “decisive.” It is “necessary to consolidate the progress achieved in Juche-oriented modernization.” For the present author, this means searching for alternative technologies that can reduce the pressure caused by sanctions. Kim noted the country’s achievements in heavy industry and energy.
“If we use our existing generating capacity to the maximum and accelerate the construction of the Tanchon Power Station, and other generating facilities, and in the future operate atomic and tidal power stations, then we can easily solve the problem of power shortages,” Kim stressed.
Significantly, Kim states here for the first time that North Korea will begin constructing a nuclear power plant and also plans to develop renewable energy sources. The author has been aware of such projects since at least 2016, but the economic crisis has significantly impeded their progress. These projects were always discussed behind closed doors.
Most of the speech focused on improving the well-being of the population. In connection with this goal, Kim Jong-un put special emphasis on regional development. He recognizes that, given the current challenges, the state must clearly demonstrate its support for the people. If it is not possible to achieve a full supply of consumer goods, the only option left is to improve infrastructure. In this context, “housing construction is an important goal, which is closely linked to the Party’s authority and the people-oriented character of the national government.” New construction is required not only in Pyongyang but also in the regions: “it is necessary to make more strenuous progress in rural construction to eliminate their centuries-old backwardness.”
The phrase “centuries-old backwardness” is a harsh but accurate description of the situation. Prior to Kim Jong-un’s initiation of Pyongyang’s building boom, in many areas low-rise buildings could still be found nestled behind modern residential blocks. Most villages were the same, even though several model cooperatives or modern houses had been built for flood victims.
Talking of other construction projects, he said that “ambitious operations are planned in the construction field, including the beautification of the administrative centers in all provinces and the construction of a major canal connecting the East and West Seas.” The canal is an intriguing concept, especially given the dire need for reconstruction of the rail network. Rail transportation suffers from clear problems, due to the fact that local bodies are currently responsible for the maintenance and repair of the system.
Regarding economic control, Kim Jong-un emphasized the need for stricter discipline and unconditional obedience to the decisions and directives of the Cabinet of Ministers. It appears that this is a fairly serious problem, as Kim’s public criticism of Prime Minister Kim Tok-hun made clear (albeit indirectly).
During and after the Arduous March, some organizations, including ministries and military units, established supporting farms or companies that developed on their premises. And the income from these initiatives did not go to the national budget, but straight into the pockets of the organizations or agencies in question. Kim Jong-un is attempting to establish a functional centralized planning system, but one obstacle to this is Kim’s repeated insistence in his speeches that the cabinet is the body primarily responsible for the economy.
At the January session this was said very harshly. “Gone are the days when the different sectors of the economy each pursued their own limited departmental aims and failed to properly implement the administrative directives of the government, thus creating imbalance and disorder in the functioning of the state economy work, without suffering any consequences. The Cabinet should exercise all the authority granted by the Party and the state in a responsible manner and take revolutionary measures to correct the system of administrative and economic work and related procedures.
It should proactively and dynamically conduct all the work by putting the overall economy of the country under its firm control and continuously improve the overall phase of development by displaying strong leadership, oversight skills and executive power. The Cabinet should make sure that no unit is out of its control, and intensify the struggle against the practices of unit specialization and egoism so as to create a climate in which the interests of the state and society as a whole are prioritized and prevail throughout the country.” Speeches of this kind point to a tightening of the screws, while also openly recognizing the imbalance and disorder prevalent in the economy.
Kim then addressed the crucial issue of stabilizing and enhancing peoples’ living standards, which he described as “the supreme task, to which the DPRK government should attach the utmost importance and pay great effort at present.” Once again, he displayed an unusual level of honesty: “Of course, we continually strive to live up to the limitless trust of the people, but so far, we have not succeeded in meeting even their modest needs. That is the truth of the matter.”
Moving from the general to the specific, Kim Jong-un began by addressing food security concerns. According to him, although food security problems were mostly resolved in 2023,“only when such a victory is sustained for several years can we solve the chronic problem of insufficient production, put the people’s lives on a normal track and consolidate their trust in the party and government.”
Kim will address the problems by focusing on the following factors:
- The central agencies will provide fuel, fertilizers, chemicals, and other materials;
- Help will be provided to villages throughout the nation;
- Measures will be taken to enhance the enthusiasm of rural workers;
- Scientific farming involves the use of advanced agricultural sciences and technology to improve irrigation systems and increase land fertility.
Another interesting point is that although rice is the main traditional cereal in the region, Kim demands that “the structure of grain production be changed, by expanding the area of land used for wheat cultivation and pushing ahead with the construction of wheat processing bases.” Since much of the country is mountainous, it makes sense to grow wheat instead of rice.
In addition, much attention is being paid to fish farming, and, even more, to poultry farming: “We are going to provide our people with more eggs and meat by building another modern poultry farm in Pyongyang Municipality by the end of this year, and farms in every province in the future.” Shortly before the session, Kim Jong-un visited a chicken farm and was impressed by what he saw. It appears that Kim was also impressed by this pilot project. Incidentally, the fact that he traveled with his ten-year old daughter convinced experts that she should be seen as his future successor.
Kim sees “tackling the differences between the capital city and the provinces and the imbalance between regions” as the second most important task after ensuring food security. He observed that there is a noticeable difference in living standards between the capital and the regions, and between urban and rural areas, which necessitates strong governmental support measures. The North Korean leader is aware that the primary cause of distrust in the government is the discrepancy between what is proclaimed in political speeches and what people observe first hand. Kim Jong-un acknowledges that some work has been done to benefit those in the regions, but overall, “the efforts to develop the local economy have been unsuccessful, and there has been no significant improvement” for those living in these areas. In general, from Kim Jong-un’s point of view, a decree of the Central Committee of the Party, which planned the upgrading of local industry only in key locations, does not go far enough and more ambition is needed. If it is not feasible to arrange assistance from the center, it is necessary to follow Kimhwa County’s leadership example by constructing factories and establishing a supply chain for raw materials. According to KCNA, in the past Kimhwa County had a weak economic base and suffered from flooding. However, today it has become a symbol of the radical renewal of local industry, with factories producing 130 different food products using agricultural products and forest resources as the main raw materials.
Essentially, Kim Jong-un acknowledged that the regime had been engaging in empty talk for decades and that people are suffering. Furthermore, he insisted, this was a problem that had persisted for 50 years. “In the 1970s and 1980s, many policy issues related to the development of regional industry and its impact on people’s living standards were discussed, but no significant measures were taken on a nationwide scale.”
Notably, Kim’s criticisms related to the situation during his grandfather’s time. Although the leader is not mentioned, this text denounces an administrative crisis that has resulted in a significant gap between words and reality. Kim’s phrase “certain excesses on the ground” is not merely a rhetorical device – he is, in fact, pointing out a structural problem, something which the present author finds extremely surprising. Kim explicitly admits that “the local economy, which is closely connected to the lives of people in the provinces, is in a very poor state, lacking even the most elementary conditions,” and that not one regional factory meets the needs of the times, and it is no longer possible to ignore this fact.
Kim Jong-un decided that it was necessary to assess the situation on the ground and determine “the order of construction.” Kim, however, has named the construction of modern industrial factories in the regions his personal political goal. Every year, 20 modern factories should be built in different counties throughout the country. This will help to raise the standard of living in all cities and counties within 10 years.
The North Korean leader plans to create “a separate section of the Organizational Leadership Department of the Party’s Central Committee, which will be responsible for managing industrial construction in the region, and I will review its work myself.” An extended meeting of the Central Committee Politburo will also be convened to finalize the policy of development in the regions. Plants in the regions should “push ahead with the work to increase the production of consumer goods and improve their quality, as required by the Central Committee of the Party.”
The next section of Kim Jong-un’s speech focuses on human resources. According to him, “we need to further strengthen the state’s integrated monitoring and management of the development of science and technology.” To do this it is necessary “to reexamine and if necessary amend the existing laws of the state, the system of managing talented staff, and regulations of all kinds, and strengthen the political and material assessment system to ensure all the people take an active part in scientific and technical research and work of technological innovations for the progress of the state and society.” Kim also emphasizes the importance of developing education, and not just in the capital: “The educational level and environment in the regions are still very low.” It is therefore necessary to raise the quality of primary and secondary education to a higher level and “decisively reduce the difference between levels of education in urban and rural areas.”
A similar strategy applies to healthcare. The Pyongyang General Hospital and a similar center in Kangwon Province are scheduled to open in 2024. Pharmaceutical and medical equipment factories will be built in the provinces.
Thus, the leadership of the DPRK has already developed a nuclear shield and gained control over strategic areas of the economy, but it is still facing significant and long-standing challenges in other areas, no less important, that demand its attention, and the time has come to address these. This says a lot about both Kim Jong-un’s intentions as a businessman and his abilities as an administrator. Therefore, the socio-economic program section of the speech warrants a thorough and public analysis.
It can be argued that Kim Jong-un demonstrated the ability to face up to facts, not only in his development of a new strategy for relations between North and South Korea, but also in economic matters. The North Korean leader openly addressed several pressing issues during his speech, acknowledging the reality without attempting to sugarcoat it. And these problems cannot just be blamed on the pandemic or on the sanctions. The goal is to bring to light problems that have arisen since the Arduous March, if not earlier. The present author hopes that the goal expressed in the following quote will be realized:
“It is an immediate task facing our government, and the long-cherished desire of our Party to eliminate the century-old backwardness, decrease the gap between the capital city and the provinces, develop the economy in the regions in a comprehensive and balanced manner, while accelerating the specific economic development of each province, and create a tradition of competitive development.”
Konstantin Asmolov, a leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, wrote this article for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”