North Korean leader Kim Jong-un closed out both 2021 and a five-day meeting of the Korean Workers Party with a speech that gave little reason to hope for a happier New Year. Contrary to predictions of major policy shifts or responding to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s desperate quest for an end-of-war declaration, Kim offered no hint of diplomatic outreach or moderating North Korea’s ongoing arms buildup. He focused instead on resolving the country’s economic “great life-and-death struggle.”
North Korea’s economic travails and pandemic concerns make diplomacy unlikely for the foreseeable future. However, the regime could always choose to engage in another major provocation to increase tension on the Korean Peninsula. It has done so repeatedly in the past.
In the first year of each of the three previous U.S. administrations, conducted a nuclear or long-range missile test. The lack of such provocation during the first year of the Biden administration was therefore uncharacteristic. However, North Korea continued short- and medium-ranging missile testing in 2021 and could eventually choose to test the new long-range missile systems it paraded publicly in 2020 and 2021.
Each January, Pyongyang signals its domestic and foreign policy priorities for the forthcoming year. The regime typically discusses foreign policy at length, either harshly criticizing Washington and Seoul or indicating a seeming willingness to negotiate. In January 2018, for example, Kim announced he would send a top-level delegation to the South Korean Winter Olympics and in 2019, he announced a willingness to again meet with President Donald Trump to discuss denuclearization.
The plenum statement’s terse, dismissive reference to “north-south relations and external affairs” was unprecedented and reflects the regime’s continued resistance to dialogue. Recently, North Korea reiterated its demands that the United States must first drop its “hostile policy” before the regime would accede to any meetings.
Kim Jong-un made scant reference to the country’s nuclear and missile forces other than to praise the defense industry for developing “one ultra-modern weapon system after another.” Kim directed pressing ahead with the production of weapons articulated in last year’s Party Congress statement. At that time, North Korea announced plans to develop multiple-warhead ICBMs, hypersonic glide warheads, tactical nuclear weapons, nuclear-powered submarines, military reconnaissance satellites, and long-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Kim’s speech also maintained the regime’s retrenchment against market-oriented reform measures, reasserting the virtues of state control and hewing to socialist economic policies. He called on the industrial and agricultural sectors to augment production, exhorting them to implement socialist principles to “strengthen the unified guidance and control of the state over economic work.” The emphasis remained on maintaining North Korea’s juche policy of self-reliance to remain independent of outside influence.
The extent to which Kim dwelled on improving the agricultural sector indicated an increasingly dire food situation. North Korea had acknowledged a “food crisis” in mid-2021, and the regime’s continuing restrictions against foreign trade, combined with international sanctions and weather calamities, suggests the populace could face famine conditions before the autumn harvest.
The plenum statement declared that emergency COVID epidemic prevention work was also a top priority, along with rural development, and constructing large housing projects to improve living conditions.
Also noteworthy was a lengthy discourse on enhancing ideological purity, particularly in rural areas. The emphasis given to upholding regime ideas and conducting the “struggle against anti-socialist and non-socialist practices” is reminiscent of similar warnings issued after Kim had his uncle Jang Song-taek executed in 2013 for disloyalty.
It is not known if the regime has faced increasing resistance from the populace or perceives greater potential for insurrection. But the plenum statement portends a continued, if not enhanced, effort by Kim to repress foreign information from contaminating his subjects. During his reign, Kim tightened border security, increased detection capabilities against foreign phones and broadcasts, and enacted legislation to make possessing outside information, including South Korean movies, punishable by death.
Past New Year’s Day speeches provided fodder for those claiming that Pyongyang was pursuing economic reforms, implementing a more benign foreign policy, and interested in abandoning its nuclear arsenal. Statements that were less vituperative in comparison with previous speeches were often perceived as messages of an enhanced regime desire for dialogue and improving relations. Some experts employed a Sherlockian dog-that-didn’t-bark logic to detect signals sent by what the regime didn’t say.
This year’s missive allows no such interpretation. While the lack of bombastic threats was welcome, there was little to suggest a willingness to resume dialogue or negotiations. Pyongyang even rejected repeated international offers of food, humanitarian assistance, and pandemic vaccines. The regime fears both the entry of the COVID virus and destabilizing foreign influence.
Pyongyang will maintain its draconian isolation measures despite their impact on the national economy and the well-being of the populace. Kim has been unable to deliver on his 2012 pledge that North Koreans would never have to “tighten their belts again,” nor has he offered new solutions to decades-old problems. Instead, he implores industries to boost production with nothing more than greater revolutionary zeal.
His 10 years in power have resulted in continued economic and food calamities, human rights violations, and political repression. The pervasive security services have maintained control, but the plenum statement may reflect growing challenges to regime stability.
The statement provided no indication that Pyongyang will decrease its military budget or redirect resources from the defense sector toward national economic development. During its isolation, North Korea will continue to develop, augment, and refine its nuclear and missile arsenals.
North Korea remains wedded to its disastrous socialist economic policies, brutal repression methods, increasing military capabilities, and defiance of UN resolutions requiring its denuclearization.
2022 will likely be quiet on the Korean Peninsula for the near term as the regime focuses on getting its economic house in order. But no one can foresee how long the relative calm will remain.
This piece originally appeared in 19fortyfive