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Unprecedented Glimpse of Crisis in North Korea

Kim Jong Un Announces Rare Workers’ Party Congress

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, August 19, 2020.  © 2020 Korea News Service via AP

On August 20, Kim Jong Un offered a rare public acknowledgement of several crises North Korea is currently facing. Citing “severe internal and external situations” and “unexpected … challenges,” he conceded government failures to improve the country’s economy, noting that “many of the planned goals for national economic growth have not yet been attained nor [have] the people’s living standards improved markedly.” It was an unprecedented admission and demonstrates the severity of North Korea’s current dire economic situation.

North Korea is facing a triple set of crises. The Covid-19 pandemic led the totalitarian country to seal its borders in January, causing huge drops in its imports and exports with China, which accounts for almost all the country’s external trade. North Korea’s economy had already been shrinking significantly since 2016 from intensifying sanctions related to its weapons program. And in the past few weeks, historic levels of torrential rains have caused widespread damage across the country and left at least 22 people dead and 4 missing. Thousands of houses and public buildings have been flooded, nearly 100,000 acres of crops damaged, and critical infrastructure destroyed, mostly in the country’s agricultural heartland, which suffers chronic food shortages and rationing even during normal times.

Despite Kim’s public admission, Kim’s actions in response to the crises are typical of his family’s decades of cruelty and prioritization of their regime over the North Korean people. Instead of direct action and undertaking of major reforms, Kim created a diversion, announcing the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea will hold a new Party Congress in January – the 8th in the country’s history – supposedly to discuss new economic policy.

These congresses are typically ornate and ceremonial events, and devoid of real policy discussions.

You can’t eat a parade – no family will be fed by the pageantry. Instead of holding a large and high-profile propaganda event, the North Korean government should be consulting with the United Nations and its member states about real reforms, while accepting emergency food assistance (North Korea rejected outside aid last week, ostensibly for fears about Covid-19 transmission). The UN and donor states should communicate that they remain ready to assist – and even more so if North Korea agrees to actual policy change. Only real political and economic reform can bring North Korea out of crisis.

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