Kim Jong Un to unveil new economic plan as North Korea crisis deepens

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will preside over a five-yearly gathering of top officials early in the new year, according to state media, which is expected to include the unveiling of a new medium-term development plan.

But analysts say Mr Kim has few viable options as North Korea faces its worst economic crisis since the young dictator assumed power in 2011.

Mr Kim has publicly pursued dual goals of economic and nuclear weapons development since taking over the pariah state on the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

The Workers’ party congress will be closely watched for signals of how the regime plans to survive a triple blow from crippling sanctions, coronavirus-prompted border closures and extreme flooding and typhoon damage this year.

Data on the secretive state’s finances are rare and often unreliable. Revenues from illicit activities such as hacking and sanctions-busting trade with China, as well as unpublished aid from Beijing, further cloud the picture.

But official statistics from China and South Korea and analysis from rating agencies and think-tanks suggest North Korea is probably battling its worst recession since the devastating famine of the mid-1990s.

The Kim regime has already demanded more cash from the moneyed elite, or donju, and cracked down on foreign exchange trading, moves that demonstrated an effort to reassert centralised economic control.

Even Mr Kim’s vanity projects have fallen victim to the economic crisis, with construction delays hitting a new beachside tourism complex, military parade grounds and a new hospital in Pyongyang, according to satellite imagery published last week.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said the party congress is likely to be “another ritualistic, empty gathering”.

“What can they do? They are going through an emergency that is likely to last another year or two,” he said.

Peter Ward, a Seoul-based North Korea researcher with the University of Vienna, said Pyongyang could copy China’s reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, packaging greater domestic market activity, property rights and entrepreneurship in a way that is ideologically “more convincing” for North Koreans.

However, he said Mr Kim has demonstrated an increasing preference for state control and appears “significantly less ambitious in his reform agenda” than many outside experts initially thought.

“I don’t see any reason to be optimistic that they’re going to suddenly unveil a new market-oriented strategic line, if anything, quite the reverse,” he said.

Mr Ward added: “It’s very mysterious that they would actually hold such an event in such circumstances, because they have so little to show-off right now.”

The party congress follows Mr Kim’s rare concession in August of his government’s failures to achieve long-term economic goals. Still, there are no signs the regime has diverted funds from its nuclear weapons programme to address the plight of North Korea’s 25m people.

The US has alleged that China continues to skirt UN sanctions in trading with North Korea, as well as housing labourers and banking and weapons procurement representatives.

Doubts have also mounted over North Korea’s claim of zero cases of domestic Covid-19 transmission despite its swift lockdown of its borders in January.

Duyeon Kim, a North Korea expert at the Center for a New American Security, a US think-tank, said the congress may also signal important personnel reshuffles and promotions. This could include the position of Kim Yo Jong, the leader’s sister, who has risen in prominence.

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