North Korea Scolds Senior Officials for ‘Intolerable’ Reductions in Economic Goals

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un before a meeting with US President Donald Trump on the south side of the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski …
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

A top North Korean official used his platform at an ongoing plenary meeting on Thursday to condemn senior communist officials “seized with extreme passivism and self-protectionism” for pursuing less aggressive economic goals than those dictator Kim Jong-un proposed.

The official, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Jo Yong-won, made his remarks a day after Kim Jong-un himself, presiding over the plenary meeting, urged Party leaders to “decisively enhance their responsibility” to pursue ambitious economic development, an indication that Kim remains unsatisfied with his underlings’ performances at their jobs.

Kim has become increasingly critical in public of his own regime, a trend that escalated in 2020 as outside experts speculated that Pyongyang was struggling to contain the impact of both the Chinese coronavirus pandemic and the economic repercussions of its total border shutdown in response to it. North Korean officials claim that they have documented zero cases of Chinese coronavirus in the country, a statistic most public health experts question given the extreme measures that the country has taken in response to the pandemic. North Korea also faced historic flooding in 2020 that devastated acres of some of the nation’s most important crops, leading to food shortage concerns.

In October, Kim Jong-un cried during a televised speech, telling citizens he was “sorry” for failing to meet their demands. Kim admitted defeat again in January, stating at the WPK Congress that his regime had failed in “almost all sectors” of economic development.

As quoted in the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Jo Yong-won spent his time before the plenary meeting listing a litany of failures on the part of senior officials. Most involved situations where senior Party officials made bold announcements for major infrastructure projects and lower-level officials quietly recalibrated those promises to more modest goals. Construction officials, he noted in one example, “dared to bring down the goal of building 10,000 dwelling houses this year, which the Party Central Committee promised to citizens in Pyongyang.” Those in charge of electrical development “artificially lowered the plan of electric power production with indifference to the urgent demand from the economic construction and people’s living.” Party leaders in charge of the fishing industry, he added, had failed to plan “for supplying fishes to the people through positive fishing activities,” a complaint on which KCNA did not elaborate.

Jo “sharply criticized senior officials of the Party Central Committee and the government who are responsible for shamefully setting the indices of major plans,” according to KCNA.

The corner-cutting he condemned, KCNA paraphrased, “show they [WPK officials] are unhesitatingly abandoning even the decisions of the Party congress and pledge taken before the people, seized with extreme passivism and self-protectionism.” Their behavior, he concluded, “should be considered as absolutely intolerable anti-Party, anti-popular act against the idea and intention of Kim Jong-un, general secretary of the WPK.”

A day before Jo’s reprimand, Kim delivered remarks at the plenary meeting, not condemning his officials but urging more enthusiasm and work ethic in solving the nation’s problems.

Kim, in a report to the Party, “stressed over again the need for economic guidance officials to decisively enhance their responsibility and role in planning and guiding this year’s economic work,” according to KCNA. Kim called for “unusual awareness … to surely bring about a remarkable improvement in this year’s economic work and people’s standard of living.”

The dictator reportedly opened the new plenary meeting on Tuesday to “stormy cheers of ‘hurrah!'” and called for, once again, more ambitious economic goals on the part of his officials. His initial report, according to KCNA, “sharply criticized the passive and self-protecting tendencies revealed by the state economic guidance organs in the course of setting this year’s goals, and stressed the principled matters for overcoming the tendencies and organizing the economic work in an innovative and meticulous way.”

The plenary meeting, which North Korean state media organs said would continue but have not specified an end date for, also resulted in the creation of a special ad-hoc committee to discuss economic improvement. The South Korean news agency Yonhap observed on Wednesday that such a committee was an unusual step for Pyongyang to take, barely precedented in its modern history.

Calling the committee “rare,” Yonhap suggested, “the North appears to have launched the rare committee in an apparent move to improve its outdated economic system as the country pushes ahead to achieve economic goals set forth at last month’s party congress.”

Kim made the dire announcement in January that North Korea had failed to meet “almost all sectors” of its five-year plan. While noting that North Korea had endured a year of “unprecedented, worst-ever trials,” he nonetheless urged Party members to do more to achieve more economic success.

His remarks in January were slightly less dramatic than those in October, where he addressed not Party leaders, but the general public.

“Our people have placed trust, as high as sky and as deep as sea, on me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily,” Kim said on that occasion, amid visible tears. “I am really sorry for that. … my efforts and sincerity have not been sufficient enough to rid our people of the difficulties in their life.”

North Korea’s usual sources of income — illegal trade with China along the northern Yalu River border — was largely unavailable to the country in the aftermath of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic. Instead, a U.N. report revealed this week showed that Pyongyang redirected its fundraising efforts towards cybercrime, building a network of hackers to steal money from online accounts. North Korea made about $300 million in 2020 through cybercrime, according to the report, which Reuters published on Monday.

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