North Korea’s Leader Had Big Economic Plans. He Admits They’ve Failed.


Mr. Kim held his major coming-out event as leader when he held the party congress in 2016, the first such meeting in 36 years. There, he adopted his ambitious five-year economic goals. The plan was for Mr. Kim to celebrate his achievement during the party’s 75th anniversary on Oct. 10 this year with pomp and spectacle.

But things have hardly transpired as Mr. Kim had hoped.

North Korea had already been struggling under the stranglehold of United Nations sanctions. Then, last week, the North Korean leader admitted that his nation was facing more challenges, “two crises at the same time”: fighting the spread of the coronavirus and coping with extensive flood damage. But he ordered his country not to accept any international aid for fear that outside help might bring in Covid-19.

In his no-nonsense assessment during the party meeting on Wednesday, Mr. Kim said his country faced “unexpected and inevitable challenges” this year. He also critiqued the “achievements and shortcomings” of his own government, state news media reported.

When Mr. Kim took power after the death in 2011 of his father and predecessor, he vowed to ensure that his people, long suffering from multiple maladies, would “never have to tighten their belt again.” In 2016, when he adopted his economic plan, the North’s economy grew 3.9 percent, the highest since a devastating famine hit the country in the late 1990s, according to the estimates by the South’s central Bank of Korea.

The growth was largely the result of ramped-up exports of coal, iron ore, textiles and fisheries to China. But the United Nations Security Council banned such exports after the North rapidly expanded its weapons programs, testing three intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2017, as well as what it said was a hydrogen bomb.

As the sanctions tightened, the North’s economy shrank by 3.5 percent in 2017, according to the Bank of Korea. It contracted by 4.1 percent the following year, with its exports to China plummeting 86 percent.

North Korea’s economy recovered slightly last year, growing 0.4 percent, as Pyongyang invented ways of easing the pain of the sanctions, such as smuggling banned cargo across the Chinese border at night or between ships on the high seas. It also exported practically anything not banned by the sanctions: cheap watches assembled with Chinese components, artificial eyelashes, wigs, mannequins and soccer balls.


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