North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ripped into the performance of his Cabinet and fired a senior economic official he appointed a month ago, saying they had failed to come up with new ideas to salvage an economy in decay.
The report yesterday by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) comes during the toughest period of Kim’s nine-year rule.
The diplomacy he had hoped would lift US-led sanctions over his nuclear program is stalemated, and COVID-19 pandemic border closures and crop-killing natural disasters last year deepened the damage to an economy broken by decades of policy failures, including a crippling famine in the 1990s.
Photo: AFP / KCNA via KNS
The border closure caused trade volume with China, the main source of support for North Korea’s economy, to drop by 75 percent in the first 10 months of last year.
Raw materials shortages caused factory output to plunge to its lowest level since Kim took power in 2011, and prices of imported foods, such as sugar, quadrupled, South Korea’s spy agency said.
Some analysts say the current challenges might set up conditions for an economic perfect storm in the North that destabilizes markets and triggers public panic and unrest.
The current challenges have forced Kim to publicly admit that past economic plans had not succeeded. A new five-year plan to develop the economy was issued during the Workers’ Party congress last month, but Kim’s comments during the Central Committee meeting that ended on Thursday were rich with frustration over how the plans have been executed so far.
During Thursday’s session, Kim lamented that the Cabinet was failing in its role as the key institution managing the economy, saying it was producing unworkable plans, while displaying no “innovative viewpoint and clear tactics.”
He said the Cabinet’s targets for agricultural production this year were set unrealistically high, considering limited supplies of farming materials and other unfavorable conditions.
Targets for electricity production were set too low, he said, showing a lack of urgency when shortages could stall work at coal mines and other industries.
“The Cabinet failed to play a leading role in mapping out plans of key economic fields and almost mechanically brought together the numbers drafted by the ministries,” the KCNA paraphrased Kim as saying.
The KCNA also said that O Su-yong was named as the new director of the Central Committee’s Department of Economic Affairs during this week’s meeting, replacing Kim Tu-il, who was appointed last month.
Analysts have said that to truly revive the economy, the country needs to invest heavily in modern factory equipment and technology, and to either import more food or improve farm productivity. A UN assessment in 2019 found that 10.1 million people, or 40 percent of the population, were food insecure and in urgent need of assistance.
The border closure has hindered updates on the situation, but output of staple grains had plateaued since surging a few years ago, when farmers were allowed to retain more of their harvests instead of handing them entirely over to the government.
The Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that nearly half of North Koreans are undernourished.
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