In a three-hour speech broadcast on North Korean TV Sunday, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un set a five-year plan to revive his country’s struggling economy. But the speech included no major policy changes or economic reforms.
Kim delivered the speech during the 7th Congress of the Workers Party of Korea, the highest-level political gathering in the isolated, one-party state. More than 3,400 party members are in Pyongyang for the congress that began Friday and continued through the weekend.
An end date hasn’t been announced for the gathering, the first party congress in 36 years.
Kim’s economic plan, the first of its kind in decades, was short on specifics. The leader, who has been in power since his father’s death in late 2011, called for a greater focus on factory automation, mechanizing agriculture, and increasing coal output.
He also called for greater exports of raw materials, but did not address how that would be possible in the wake of heightened U.N. sanctions after this year’s purported hydrogen bomb and missile tests.
The speech focused extensively on the struggles and progress of North Korea since the last party congress in 1980. Kim repeatedly referenced North Korea’s “Juche” ideology of self-reliance, but also spoke of a desire to increase foreign trade.
Kim spoke of his country’s economic collapse in the 1990’s on the heels of the implosion of the former Soviet Union, followed by a period of famine and hardship known locally as “the arduous march.”
In recent years, there have been signs of a modest economic recovery here in Pyongyang, the capital. There is more traffic, restaurants, and consumer items such as smartphones, electronics, and fashionable clothing. South Korea’s central bank estimates the North Korean economy has grown by around 1% annually over the last three years.
In keeping with his pledge to improve his people’s living standards, Kim also emphasized the need to generate more electricity in a nation that has long suffered from power shortages. He called for more domestic energy sources, including renewables and nuclear power.
Even in the capital, where citizens enjoy the highest living standard in the nation, many residents have electricity for just a few hours each morning and evening.
Kim’s address highlighted his “Byongjin” policy of pushing economic growth and nuclear armament simultaneously.
He pledged North Korea would not use its nuclear weapons “unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes.”
In addition to his economic goals, Kim also proposed holding military talks with South Korea to ease rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. South Korea’s unification ministry dismissed the offer as “merely its propaganda drive with no sincerity as it speaks of inter-Korean dialogue while continuing to develop a nuclear arsenal.”
In the highly secretive country, where the government controls information even among its own officials, foreign journalists and their government minders had a confusing and frustrating day on Sunday.
After being told to dress formally, more than 100 journalists were driven to the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang, a venue where press conferences are often held. Outside, there was a line of black Mercedes-Benz sedans with 727 license plates reserved for high-ranking party members.
Reporters were told to bring their passports and equipment inside for a security check. But after members of the media waited in the lobby for around an hour, an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced “the program has changed” and the journalists were driven back to their hotel, where they stayed for the remainder of the day.
The state-controlled media continues to be the only source of information for international reporters in Pyongyang, who’ve been taken on sightseeing tours around the city but have been given no access to the party congress or any government officials. Reporters were allowed to take pictures and video while standing across the street from the party congress venue on Friday, shortly after the event began.