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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared a policy shift towards strategic weapons development to deter the U.S., but said citizens will have to tighten their belts and independently solve economic problems as sanctions relief is not expected soon, in comments issued at the final day of a party plenary meeting.
The report on day four plenum conclusions, published by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Wednesday morning, carried the over-riding message that Pyongyang is digging in its heels against U.S. calls for unilateral denuclearization.
As a result, Kim Jong Un said to the nation, there will be no realistic chance of sanctions relief on the horizon and North Koreans will therefore need to “tighten our belts” and fix “insufficient” economic management to counter Washington with a stronger economy.
Besides economic development, Kim said the other half of the new policy — referencing directly the old byungjin line — will be to “steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons” and “reliably put on constant alert the powerful nuclear deterrent capable of containing the nuclear threats from the U.S.”
Importantly, Kim did not directly slam the door on talks with the U.S., saying “the scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated depending on the U.S. future attitude to the DPRK.”
Overall, Kim signalled that the “new path” he previously warned of taking in the new year will indeed mark a shift to open “nuclear deterrent” development and pursuit of independent economic development to mitigate sanctions.
The plenum or “5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK” was held in Pyongyang from Saturday to Tuesday, with Kim’s speech on the final day airing on state television in place of the anticipated New Year Address on Wednesday morning, which may still come later in the day or in a different format.
MILITARY SHIFT, U.S. FOCUS
Towards the top of the speech quoted in KCNA, Kim provided the lay of the land on the DPRK’s recent weapons development and future plans in the context of countering the U.S.
Through the dozen-plus missile tests and other work of national defense scientists, North Korea developed in 2019 “the ultra-modern weapon,” he reportedly said, and achieved “possession of promising strategic weapon system planned by the Party one by one … defending and guaranteeing our sovereignty and right to existence.”
In “clarif[ying] the policy of the WPK (Workers’ Party of Korea) towards the U.S.,” Kim said “we should more actively push forward the project for developing strategic weapons” and “confirmed that the world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future.”
Kim “called on the officials and scientists in the field of munitions industry” to once again tap into the “spirit and mettle with which they developed the nuclear war deterrent through [the] three-year arduous struggle,” which was said to have been completed in early 2018.
In order to counter U.S. “provocative political, military and economic maneuvers to completely strangle and stifle the DPRK,” Kim then declared the country “will shift to a shocking actual action to make it pay for the pains sustained by our people so far and for the development so far restrained.”
It is unclear if Kim Jong Un’s April 2018 self-declared moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing has been officially rescinded, but Kim said that “under such condition” of having halted these tests while receiving only perceived provocations from the U.S., “there is no ground for us to get unilaterally bound to the commitment any longer.”
These actions from the U.S. were listed as being “tens of big and small joint military drills which its president personally promised to stop” in the Singapore summit, direct threats to the DPRK through “the shipment of ultra-modern warfare equipment into south Korea,” and having enacted “more than ten independent sanctions measures” – referring to U.S. designations of individuals and companies found to be violating existing sanctions.
These fall far short of the “appropriate measures” Pyongyang had expected in return for its gestures and showed “before the world once again that [the U.S.] remained unchanged in its ambition to stifle the [DPRK],” Kim said.
By saying the moratorium would end “under such condition” of this pattern continuing, the North appears not to have issued a final decision about breaching it.
“As a result, it appears the North is leaving a small window of opportunity to the White House,” said Korea Risk Group CEO Chad O’Carroll.
“Their message reads: if you stop all military exercises with South Korea, deliver them no further F-35s, and reduce sanctions pressure, we might not break our moratorium.”
Further suggesting Kim is still willing to hear from Washington were remarks that “the scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated depending on the U.S. future attitude to the DPRK.”
Another conditional warning was given as follows: “If the U.S. persists in its hostile policy towards the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula and the DPRK will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK and lasting and durable peace-keeping mechanism is built.”
Rachel Minyoung Lee, senior analyst with NK News’s sister site NK Pro, believes that in his plenum speech, Kim “fell short of choosing the worst scenario, which would have been suspending diplomacy with the U.S. and explicitly declaring resumption of ICBM and nuclear testing.”
As a result, “it leaves the door open for diplomacy with the U.S.,” Lee said.
“And notably Kim did not set a specific deadline this time, although he implied he will not wait long and that consequences will be dire when it altogether gives up diplomacy with the U.S.”
She added the plenum speech implies the situation “will remain in a stalemated mode for the time being…”.
Any subsequent word from the U.S., however, will have to come in the form of sanctions relief.
NO SANCTIONS RELIEF AHEAD
While Kim declared no intention to denuclearize on Washington’s terms and that he sees a prolonged standoff ahead, the main consequence stressed at length throughout his speech was that economic sanctions will remain, and that the country’s economy will face severe challenges as a result.
Kim “solemnly declared that there is no need to hesitate with any expectation of the U.S. lift[ing] of sanctions,” and told his domestic audience to prepare for a “long confrontation with the U.S.” and accept “that we have to live under the sanctions by the hostile forces in the future, too, and to strengthen the internal power from all aspects.”
The present situation requires the North Korean people to “tighten our belts,” Kim said, also referring to the country’s “development so far restrained” as a result of existing sanctions.
But the country’s government and economic managers were criticized by Kim for having so far failed to come up with a solution to the ongoing issues posed by sanctions.
He referred to “problems that need to be set right in state management, economy and other fields,” and said government management of the economy is “insufficient” and “stagnant,” and that it has “fail[ed] to bring about a bold renovation.”
He specifically called out poor management practices and “stagnation found in metal, chemical, power, coal, machine and building materials industrial fields, railway transport and light industrial field,” and called for a greater focus on science and technology.
But despite all of the “manifold hardships in the economic work,” Kim declared the country would not bow to U.S. demands, no matter the economic consequences.
“It is true that we urgently need [an] external environment favorable for the economic construction but we can never sell our dignity which we have so far defended as valuable as our own life, in hope for brilliant transformation,” Kim reportedly said, appearing to reference U.S. offers of direct assistance towards drastic economic development after complete denuclearization.
As the North Korean people were told not to expect sanctions relief to bring positive economic results any time soon, Kim instead urged the country to “bolster our own strength and create valuable wealth on the strength of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.”
Kim then called on the nation’s cadres to bear the weight of the hardships, saying “all the Party organizations and officials have to shoulder upon themselves the important duties entrusted to them by the times and turn out in the offensive for frontal breakthrough to foil the enemies’ sanctions and blockade by dint of self-reliance.”
Various organizational changes were introduced, according to KCNA, as well as “innovative measures and detailed plans for adjusting the overall state machinery to spur the economic development and to enhance the role of officials.”
But with the focus implied in Kim’s speech to be on both an economic struggle under prolonged sanctions pressure and weapons development to up the pressure on the U.S., NK Pro analyst Lee said North Korea appears once again to be “on a path resembling byungin, without explicitly saying so.”
Byungjin refers to the policy line of “simultaneous economic construction and nuclear armed forces construction.”
“The plenum says the economy remains the basic foundation of the country, but it also mentions dedicating all energy to building national defense,” Lee said.
She added that “it also mentions the possibility of belt-tightening, a formulation that traditionally has meant making sacrifices in the civilian sector to bolster national defense.”
Rounding out the plenum was the adoption of a draft resolution, which declared plans in eight areas, many of which have been standard points of focus for plenums past:
There was also reshuffling of top leadership positions in the WPK Central Committe, Central Committee Political Bureau, and others.
PLENUM AND NEW YEAR CLASH
Kim’s plenum speech was aired on Korean Central Television (KCTV) around 09:00 Korean time on the morning of New Year’s Day, but was edited with narration instead of in full, and without audio of Kim’s delivery.
Throughout the hour-long program on the four days of the Plenary meeting, which focused on Kim’s Tuesday speech at the WPK headquarters venue, KCTV showed images of speech items matching the narration, such as missiles, completed economic projects, factories, etc. — a staple feature of Kim’s past New Year Addresses.
The New Year Address was expected to air Wednesday morning around the same time as the plenum results aired, but may still come later in the day as it has also aired as late as noon in some previous years.
As the plenum speech did not contain a detailed review and outlook on all specific industries of priority and national policies, Kim will likely still be expected to make a New Year’s speech or address these areas in some other format.
Additional contributions by Jeongmin Kim
Edited by Chad O’Carroll