[News analysis] 5 key terms for parsing Kim Jong-un’s vision for N. Korea in 2022

Posted on : 2022-01-03 16:42 KST Modified on : 2022-01-03 16:42 KST
From a North Korean Saemaul Movement to COVID-19 prevention work, here’s a rundown of what did (and didn’t) make it into Kim’s speech
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un can be seen speaking at the fourth plenary meeting of the 8th Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee, which took place from Dec. 27 to 31. In this photo from North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA/Yonhap News)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un can be seen speaking at the fourth plenary meeting of the 8th Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee, which took place from Dec. 27 to 31. In this photo from North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA/Yonhap News)

The fourth plenary meeting of the 8th Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee took place from Dec. 27 to 31 under North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

At the meeting, Kim declared what amounts to his version of South Korea’s community development project known as the Saemaul Movement, while calling COVID-19 prevention North Korea's “most important work.” In contrast, effectively no mention was made of policies toward South Korea, or of foreign policies in general. For a third straight year, the meeting included no New Year’s address by Kim.

Here are five key terms that tell us what Kim’s focus will be in 2022.

① Declaring Kim’s version of the Saemaul Movement

The tasks for 2022 named by Kim the plenary meeting boiled down to a declaration of the North Korean leader’s version of the Saemaul Movement.

Kim gave a separate speech on the issue under the title “Let us open up a new great era of our style socialist rural development” and adopted a separate decision statement.

An overwhelming 43% of the press statement released after the plenary meeting was devoted to strategies related to rural communities. Kim stressed that the WPK “gives top priority” to the “agricultural field.”

The declaration centered on an approach of “turning all rural villages in the country into rich and cultured socialist ideal villages at the level similar to those in Samjiyon City.”

To this end, Kim called for “increase[ing] the share of investment in [the] agricultural field” and “set[ting] up a strict system and order by which equipment, materials and fund[ing] are unconditionally provided as planned.”

Pledging to “completely solve the food problem,” he stressed the importance of orienting the country's agricultural production towards “shifting the dietary culture of our people” to one in which rice and flour-based foods are staples. This indicates that he intends to reduce the North’s dependence on corn for food.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (center) can be seen here visiting the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on New Year’s Day in this photo from North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency. (KCNA/Yonhap News)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (center) can be seen here visiting the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on New Year’s Day in this photo from North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency. (KCNA/Yonhap News)
② Focus on economy, rapid advancements for economic officials

Calling the “economic sector” the “main front of social construction,” Kim said that large-scale construction projects would be the “top priority” in economic efforts.

In a possible gesture toward the North’s three main problems at the moment — intensive long-term sanctions by the US and UN, steep drops in foreign trade and support amid border closures in response to the persistent COVID-19 pandemic, and the long-term stalemates in relations with the South and US — Kim stressed that “we all will face heavy yet responsible agony.”

Noting that “ways of stabilizing the economy and subsisting by dint of self-reliance defying [the] extremely severe environment have been positively found out and applied,” he added that “the struggle in 2022 is a great life-and-death struggle to be vigorously waged successfully.” His message read a signal that Pyongyang plans to carry on with its approach emphasizing “self-reliance.”

Among those named as WPK Central Committee members were seven Cabinet officials in economic areas, including Minister of Forestry Han Ryong-guk, and four local economy officials, including North Pyongan Province agriculture accounting committee chair Kye Myong-chol. Vice Premier and State Planning Commission Chair Pak Jong-gun was promoted to full Politburo membership after being named a candidate member a year ago.

The appointments read as signals of Kim’s commitment to focusing on the economy and people’s livelihoods.

A portrait of Pak Jong-gun, vice premier and State Planning Commission chair, who was promoted to full Politburo membership after being named a candidate member a year ago, provided by North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA/Yonhap News)
A portrait of Pak Jong-gun, vice premier and State Planning Commission chair, who was promoted to full Politburo membership after being named a candidate member a year ago, provided by North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA/Yonhap News)
③ “Advanced and people-oriented” disease prevention

COVID-19 prevention was also named as an important task.

Kim repeatedly stressed that emergency COVID-19 response measures were to be a “top priority” in state efforts and “the most important work.” He also named “firmly preparing the material and technological foundation of the epidemic prevention sector” and “switching our epidemic prevention into advanced and people-oriented one” as new directions in disease prevention.

Analysts read this as an indication that Pyongyang plans to keep its border closure in place for the time being, while exploring the acquisition of vaccines and medications.

The question of whether the North would relax its border closure — which has been in place since late January 2020 — has been considered a key indicator signaling whether it plans to end its silence and pursue contact and dialogue with Seoul and elsewhere.

④ S. Korea and other foreign policy nowhere to be found

Kim made almost no reference to policies concerning South Korea and the rest of the world.

The only mention in the entire press statement was a sentence reading, “The conclusion set forth principled issues and a series of tactical orientations, all of which should be maintained by the sectors of the north-south relations and external affairs to cope with the rapidly changing international political situation and the circumstances in the surroundings.” Those 43 words amounted to 0.4% of the entire statement emerging from the plenary meeting.

The reference was vastly shorter than the content devoted to South Korea and other foreign policy in previous New Year’s addresses and the statements from the fifth plenary meeting of the 7th Central Committee in December 2019 and the eighth WPK Congress in January 2021 — which each took the place of a New Year’s address for that year.

Also absent was any reiteration of Pyongyang’s existing official positions regarding “hostile policies” and the abolition of “double standards” against the North. Analysts read this absence of policy references as based on the determination the time was not yet right for explicitly presenting policies on South Korea and the rest of the world — and that future responses should be tailored to conditions and the fluid political situation.

A view of a New Year’s 2022 performance that took place at 11 pm on Dec. 31 at Kim Il-sung Square in central Pyongyang from North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency. (KCNA/Yonhap News)
A view of a New Year’s 2022 performance that took place at 11 pm on Dec. 31 at Kim Il-sung Square in central Pyongyang from North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency. (KCNA/Yonhap News)
⑤ No references to nukes or ICBMs

Nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and strategic weapons were not mentioned explicitly in the press statement following the plenary meeting. The deliberate silence was noteworthy in itself.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification noted that the statement was “focused in general on resolving domestic issues as mentioned at the 8th WPK Congress [on Jan. 5–12, 2021], including improvements to the economy and people’s livelihoods.”

Analysts are predicting that this approach of focusing on domestic politics while “observing” conditions in the South and overseas, which has continued since the 8th Congress, will remain in place as an extension of Pyongyang’s strategic focus on “channeling all efforts on the economic construction” — as stated at the 3rd plenary meeting of the 7th WPK in April 2018 — and “making a breakthrough head-on [. . .] by dint of self-reliance, as mentioned at the 5th plenary meeting of the 7th WPK in December 2019.

Some observers are suggesting that with Kim emphasizing a focus on the economy and the livelihoods of North Koreans while declaring his own version of a community development movement, Seoul should look to agriculture, rural communities, and rural residents as a link toward breaking through the inter-Korean impasse.

The Peaceful Unification Advisory Council, which was established to advise the South Korean president on matters of unification policy, stressed the “need to seek out inter-Korean cooperation that is focused on the tasks North Korea has set out for rural community development.”

Meanwhile, North Korea’s party-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported Sunday that Kim had paid a visit the day before to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang, where the bodies of his grandfather Kim Il-sung and father Kim Jong-il were interred.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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