Mired in crises, North Korea’s Kim to open big party meeting

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SEOUL, KOREA, REPUBLIC OF – Coronavirus restrictions that have significantly limited its public appearances. Warning signs for an economy plagued by border closures and natural disasters linked to a pandemic. The imminent departure of an American president who declared to have “fallen in love” with him.
As North Korean leader Kim Jong Un grapples with the most difficult challenges of his nine-year reign, he is set to open a huge ruling Workers’ Party convention next month to try to win greater public loyalty to it and to define new economic and foreign policies.

While not many people question Kim’s grip on power, there is still a possibility that things will get worse, especially if the world fails to find a quick way out of the COVID-19 crisis. This would prolong North Korea’s self-imposed lockdown and potentially create the conditions for a perfect economic storm that destabilizes the food and currency markets and triggers panic among the public.

Congress, the first in five years, is the ruling party’s main decision-making body. At the 2016 congress, Kim took the lead, reaffirming his commitment to developing nuclear weapons and announcing an ambitious economic development plan. Five years later, experts say Kim doesn’t have many options other than pushing her people harder for more patience and hard work.

“When we go into detail, there is really nothing new the North could present to Congress in terms of developing its economy,” said Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea National Unification Institute. Seoul. “The country will continue to close its borders as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and international sanctions persist, so there is no visible room for a breakthrough. ”

Kim entered this year with a “head-on” statement against sanctioning UN sanctions after his high-stakes diplomacy with President Donald Trump collapsed in 2019 following the United States’ refusal to offer a extended sanctions relief in exchange for limited denuclearization measures.

But Kim’s conduct faced an immediate setback. Later in January, North Korea was forced to seal off its international borders, including one with China – its largest trading partner and aid benefactor – after the emergence of COVID-19.

Due to the border closure, North Korea’s trade volume with China in the first 10 months of this year fell 75%. This led to a shortage of raw materials that plunged the operating rate of the North plant to its lowest level since Kim took office in late 2011, and a fourfold increase in the price of food. imported like sugar and seasonings, the South Korean spy agency recently told lawmakers.

For several months, North Korea also restricted the use of the US dollar in markets, causing its local currency, the won, to appreciate sharply, which has attracted more and more public complaints. Authorities executed a high-profile currency trader in Pyongyang in October as a scapegoat, according to Ha Tae-keung, one of the lawmakers who was briefed by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, or NIS.

Lim Soo-ho, an analyst at a think tank led by NIS, said North Korea was likely aiming to reassert government control over markets amid the pandemic. He said such a move was doomed to fail, as people would likely only trade a portion of their savings in hard currency for won in anticipation of an end to the crackdown.

Lim said if the COVID-19 pandemic continued for most of 2021, the northern economy could face an unprecedented crisis since a devastating famine that killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in the 1990s.

During next month’s congress, North Korea will likely call for another “frontal breakthrough” to strengthen its internal strength and build a more self-reliant economy. But as long as the pandemic continues, the North will have to settle for modest economic goals while focusing on its anti-virus efforts, the Seoul-based Institute for Far Eastern Studies said in a report.

North Korea has firmly claimed to be coronavirus-free, although it has said it has stepped up what it called “maximum” anti-epidemic steps. Outside experts are very skeptical of the declaration of zero virus cases in the North, but agree the country has not experienced a generalized epidemic.

“Why have they increased their anti-epidemic measures if they really haven’t had patients? It doesn’t make sense, ”said Kim Sin-gon, professor at Korea University College of Medicine in Seoul. “But they’ve imposed a higher level of anti-virus measures than any other country, so it’s likely that there aren’t many patients there. ”

North Korea’s public health infrastructure remains in shambles, with many hospitals still using equipment built in the 1960s and 1970s. This keeps North Korean officials vigilant as “they know they will take enormous damage. if they let their guard down a bit, ”said Kang Young-sil, an analyst at the Seoul University of North Korean Studies.

Since the start of the pandemic, North Korea has isolated people suspected of coronavirus symptoms, deported foreign nationals and reportedly locked region after region. In some extreme measures Seoul detected, the North has banned sea fishing, executed an official for breaking regulations on entering goods from overseas, and shooting and burning a South Korean official found floating on an object in the waters near the Koreas. western maritime border.

“North Korea is very sensitive and nervous in the midst of the pandemic, and it is taking irrational and bizarre measures,” said Nam Sung-wook, professor at Korea University of South Korea.

Kim Jong Un, 36, curls up. He has appeared in public 53 times this year to observe weapons tests, visit areas affected by typhoons and chair high-level meetings, according to the Seoul Unification Ministry, compared to an average of 103 appearances during of the past four years.

Despite the deadlocked nuclear talks, North Korea was likely hoping for the re-election of Trump, who has met Kim three times, giving him his much-desired legitimacy on the world stage. Trump once said that he exchanged “love letters” with Kim and that “we fell in love.”

Instead of the top-down summit used by Kim and Trump, President-elect Joe Biden is likely to want operational-level negotiators to work out the details and confirm North Korea’s denuclearization pledge before meeting with Kim. North Korea is also probably not a top priority for Biden, who faces several pressing internal issues such as the coronavirus, an economy hammered by the pandemic and racial disparities.

Some experts say North Korea could go with its age-old strategy of conducting missile tests to gain US attention, as it did during previous periods of presidential transition in Washington. Others expect the North to avoid major provocations that could reduce the prospect of swift negotiations with the Biden administration.

Satellite images provided by Maxar, a Colorado-based satellite imagery company, show thousands of people gathered in formation in Pyongyang’s main plaza on Saturday, presumably rehearsing for the upcoming celebrations. The South Korean spy agency said earlier that North Korea would hold a military parade in January to demonstrate its military strength targeting the Biden administration.

Kim’s government has acknowledged that the sanctions, pandemic, typhoons and summer floods that wiped out crops have created “multiple crises.” But experts say China will help North Korea because it is unlikely to let its neighbor suffer from a humanitarian disaster that could cause an influx of refugees over their border.

“Kim was beaten by a double punch – UN sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic,” Nam said. “But China is by his side and supporting him. ”

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