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The Peninsula

North Korea’s Sad Party Plenum

Published January 10, 2022
Category: North Korea

“[Kim Jong-un] stressed the need for the fishing industrial sector to conduct a work for catching more fish…”

–From the report on the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the WPK

This year, the summary of the recently-convened Party Plenum stood in for Kim Jong-un’s new year’s address. The report sought to make the best out of a long arc of economic failure. But that failure is increasingly difficult for the leadership to conceal, not only from the party but from the wider public. At one level, the unusual focus of the plenum report on the rural sector could be read as a positive sign were it actually to redress long-standing economic imbalances in favor of Pyongyang, the military and heavy industry. At another level, though, the emphasis on agriculture constituted yet another open admission of the ongoing food crisis, the depth of which is almost impossible to gauge given the departure of virtually all outside observers.

Kim Jong-un convened the 7th Party Congress in 2016 to place greater emphasis on party institutions and to roll out an ambitious five-year plan that would bear his stamp. Although altogether orthodox and top-down in design, the Congress documents had an upbeat tone, embracing self-reliance as a choice and devoting significant attention to the regime’s ambition for a “leapfrogging” development strategy through investments in science and technology. Just as the Congress convened, however, the sanctions regime moved in a much tougher direction and recorded trade with China plummeted. The summit era failed to deliver on any of its high-flying promises, particularly with respect to sanctions relief. Since the failed Hanoi summit self-reliance has been portrayed less as an ideological choice than a reality forced on the regime by external headwinds: the combination of sanctions and the COVID-related border closure. The 8th Party Congress report—issued a year ago–included an open admission that “almost all sectors fell a long way short of objectives” and sought a course correction.

The party plenum report is the course correction to the 8th Party Congress course correction. Even the Agenda that led the report on the plenum signaled distress. Tucked in among the standard items—the work plan and budget for the year, party rules and a session on the organizational and ideological life—was a separate session titled “on the immediate tasks for the correct solution of the socialist rural question in our country.” In total, the long digression on the rural sector accounted for over 40% of the entire report; by contrast, practically no attention was paid to the international security or diplomatic context.

The document had a schizophrenic feel. The “review of the execution of major party and state policies for 2021 and the work plan for 2022” contained the usual litany of sectoral ambitions, with an emphasis on heavy industries. This emphasis has a logic, to be sure. Not only are heavy industries such as metallurgy integral to the military-industrial complex, but sectors such as chemicals, electricity and coal are crucial for addressing the country’s ongoing energy insecurity. Moreover, the country’s particular dependence on fertilizer–given unfavorable growing conditions–has contributed to the problems agriculture has faced. The problem has been underscored by on-the-spot guidance tours to facilities such as the Sunchon Fertilizer Factory, including by Kim Jong-un himself.

Yet for the most part, this portion of the report takes the form of the epigraph at the head of this post: that industries simply need to grow. The long-standing confusion in party documents between goals and the means of achieving them is on ample display, as is the long-standing tendency to address policy shortcomings by mobilization and exhortation of greater effort. I was hard pressed to find a single reference to how incentives, management, or trade played into any of the objectives in this section of the report.

Moreover, there is the broader problem of how an emphasis on the heavy and chemical industries comports with the larger message that more attention has to be paid to consumers, presumably by focusing on light industry—which received scant attention–and agriculture, which was the focal point of the report. The pathway to reform of the agricultural system has been known for some time, and the early years of Kim Jong-un’s rule hinted at subtle but nonetheless important changes that mirrored early reforms in China and Vietnam. These measures include:

  • Shrinking of the size of sub-work teams on collective farms so that incentives are more aligned to the household;
  • Allowing cooperatives and even individual farmers to retain a larger portion of the harvest not only to eat but to sell;
  • Permitting private investments on the collective farms;
  • Allowing collective farms, enterprises and even households to maintain “side work” plots that can be used for trade or consumption.

It was hard to find any evidence in the report—even in code—suggesting that this was a direction the government was willing to move. Rather, the report calls for expediting three revolutions—“ideological, technical and cultural”—in order to achieve the objective of socialist rural reconstruction. The first and the third of these are the most dispiriting, as they suggest reversion to exhortation and discipline. The report is worth quoting at length:

Saying that it is the most crucial task in the socialist rural construction and a key factor for its victory to make the agricultural workers main players and masters of the rural revolution, the General Secretary stressed that it is of paramount importance to put priority efforts into transforming the thought of agricultural workers and enhancing their political awareness so as to firmly prepare all of them to be rural revolutionaries upholding the Party’s idea of socialist rural construction with loyalty.


Important here is to educate the agricultural workers to let them work faithfully with high class awareness while firmly arming them with the revolutionary idea and policy of our Party and with the fighting spirit displayed by hero farmers and patriotic farmers in the different annals of the revolution, helping them grasp the greatness and gratitude for the Party, state and the social system and making collectivism dominate their thinking and life.”

References to agricultural extension—cast in terms of “science—irrigation, and an investment program that echoed South Korea’s saemaul movement of the 1970s could in principle raise rural incomes and well-being. But this is grasping for small straws; for every mention of complementary rural investments there are equal if not more references to state planning, targets and the parasitic agricultural guidance system centered on the county co-op farm management committees. A measure releasing cooperative farms from the arrears in state loans—touted as an act of beneficence–only underscores the biases that need to be reversed; such arrears reflect nothing less than the imposition of adverse terms of trade on the rural sector and an effort to extract from it. Even the look and feel of rural communities was not exempt from top-down control, as “the General Secretary specially emphasized the need to thoroughly maintain the Party’s idea on architectural beauty in local construction, ensuring originality, modernity and cultural refinement and political nature in farm construction.”

It is hard to find any silver linings in the plenum report; it reads like a testimony to intellectual bankruptcy. As the purported hypersonic launch suggests, the regime might revive testing efforts as a means of getting the Biden administration’s attention. But this strategy seems highly unlikely to yield serious relief. The only positive I can see is that despite the centralizing tendencies during the COVID era, the regime will—of necessity—be forced to rely on ongoing marketization to muddle through. As Ben Katzeff Silberstein points out, the report downplayed the 8th Party Congress emphasis on corruption, perhaps greenlighting any institutional arrangements and deals at the local level that will work. Such acquiescence will probably permit the country to muddle through 2022, particularly if the border reopens. But for North Korea, muddling through effectively means standing still, which is cold comfort for the North Korean public.

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from Wikimedia commons.

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