When the world’s youngest dictator addressed his 25 million or so people on May 7, 2016, he made a bold promise.
In just five years, the livelihoods of all North Koreans would be markedly improved, said Kim Jong Un, then 32 years old. North Korea would become a “highly civilized socialist country” whose people would enjoy the “conditions and environment for leading a wealthy and a highly civilized life to their heart’s content,” Kim said.
The goal was ambitious bordering on impossible.
At the time, North Korea was one of the world’s poorest countries, and an international pariah restrained by economic sanctions for its dogged pursuit of a nuclear weapons program.
Kim appeared confident that, after purging dozens of officials who served under his father, a new cohort of leaders under his stewardship could turn things around. But the economic vision Kim laid out at that major conference in 2016 – the first Workers’ Party of Korea Congress since 1980 – was not supported by any details other than a vague five-year plan, the economic agendas common among 20th century communist states.
There were no specifics, and certainly no major policy changes designed to achieve Kim’s aim.
This Saturday, October 10, marks 75 years since the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea – the communist political party that has ruled North Korea since the country’s inception.
By now, Kim could have expected to have been celebrating his country’s economic success alongside one of its most significant national days.
It would have been a golden propaganda opportunity to portray Kim as one of the most important leaders and freedom fighters in Korean history, or at least North Korea’s version of it.
But the last few years haven’t panned out as Kim might have hoped, and by mid-August of 2020, he admitted what had become abundantly clear: the plan had failed.
Kim blamed “unexpected and inevitable challenges in various aspects and the situation in the region surrounding the Korean peninsula,” according to a report published by North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA.
State media didn’t specify which challenges, but they are likely to include sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and fallout from recent floods.
October 10 will still be celebrated, though it’s unclear how the country will adapt its customary military parades amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Satellite images taken in August and September appear to show rehearsals are underway, according to an analysis by North Korea specialty website 38 North. And a handful of experts believe Pyongyang may use the opportunity to reveal a new “strategic weapon” that Kim teased in January.
Still, October 10 was supposed to be more than just a military parade – it was supposed celebration of all Kim Jong Un had accomplished in the last five years. Instead, Kim must mark the occasion while facing the most daunting set challenges he has seen since taking power.
A strategy half-finished
Two years after taking power in 2012, Kim announced North Korea would be guided a new national strategy of developing the country’s nuclear weapons program while simultaneously working to jump start the economy.
The two were hardly given equal weight in practice. Kim oversaw more ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests than his father and grandfather combined, while the economy sputtered along year after year. The focus on weapons yielded fruit in 2017, when Kim successfully tested a hydrogen bomb and three intercontinental ballistic missiles, the type of projectiles designed to deliver nuclear warheads over long distances. While experts still debate whether or not North Korea can successfully pair the two and hit a precise target half a world away, the regime demonstrated enough new capabilities to worry the United States and its allies.
In his annual New Year’s Day address in 2018, a speech akin to a US President’s State of the Union, Kim said that North Korea had completed its effort to develop viable nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and thanked his people for paying the price.
“We have created a mighty sword for defending peace, as desired by all our people who had to tighten their belts for long years,” he said.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was costly, and more than just in terms of man hours and materiel. Each weapons test was seen as a major provocation by the international community. They were met with increasingly punishing United Nations Security Council resolutions. At first, sanctions mostly targeted North Korea’s weapons production capabilities, but by 2017, the international community was going after Pyongyang’s ability to make money overseas on everything from shellfish to coal. The hope was that these measures would choke North Korea’s economy to the point that it would force Kim to the negotiating table.
When the time came for his January 2018 speech – approaching two years into the five-year plan – Kim shifted gears. He was ready to embrace diplomacy, and he did it fast. In just six months, Kim went from global pariah to a statesman holding court with the leaders of China, South Korea, Singapore and the United States.
What exactly motivated Kim to stop weapons testing and emerge from isolation is still debated. US President Donald Trump’s administration claims sanctions, which Washington had largely organized and pushed for, gave Kim no choice but to negotiate. Kim, on the other hand, said in March of 2018 that his country no longer needed weapons tests because its quest for nuclear bombs and the missiles to deliver them was complete. Diplomacy was the logical next move.
Kim now had his weapons and he was ready to talk.
Three meetings, two leaders, one big disagreement
Trump and Kim met three times: June 2018 in Singapore, February 2019 in Hanoi and then again briefly at the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas in June 2019. By the third meeting, North Korea was more than three years into its five-year plan, but had yet to deliver the economic prosperity promised to its people.
Things had largely been going Kim’s way until he met Trump in the Vietnamese capital. By that point, the young North Korean leader had arguably completed an advanced nuclear weapons program; repaired relations with longtime ally China; and held a meeting with a sitting US president, a propaganda victory his father and his grandfather – the man who founded North Korea – had only dreamed of.
Kim came to Hanoi ready to make a deal to shut down Yongbyon, the biggest and best-known facility in North Korea that produced fissile material for nuclear weapons, in exchange for sanctions relief, according to Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton.
But Trump’s administration vowed that sanctions relief would not come before Kim surrendered his nuclear weapons. North Korea had struck phased, step-by-step nuclear deals with previous US administrations, but all those had failed. Trump and his aides made it clear it was time for something new.
Trump wanted some sort of “big deal” that saw North Korea give up its nuclear program quickly for immediate sanctions relief. A top State Department official said Washington was seeking something like a nuclear down payment.
But such a deal requires a modicum of trust, something the two sides do not have. North Korea has long looked at leaders like Moammar Gadhafi of Libya – who gave up his incipient nuclear weapons program in exchange for financial relief, only to be overthrown by US-backed forces years later – as cautionary tales.
The disagreement over the big picture didn’t derail things in Singapore, but it proved insurmountable in Hanoi.
Kim repeatedly pushed a deal along the lines of Yongbyon-for-sanctions relief, but he was not keen to negotiate away ballistic missiles or North Korea’s secret nuclear sites, according to Bolton’s recently published memoir. Bolton said he was told by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Kim told Trump and the top US diplomat he was “very frustrated” and “getting angry” that Washington wasn’t keen on the trade. Later, when Bolton was in the room, he said Kim appeared “visibly frustrated” when it became clear the two sides had reached an impasse.
Trump decided to walk away, concluding that Kim wasn’t ready to agree to something the White House was interested in. Working-level talks between the two sides both before and after Hanoi failed to yield any substantial progress, though the two leaders continued corresponding through letters.
So Pyongyang resumed weapons testing, though not the long-range ballistic missiles that could reach the United States, and Kim gave the US something of an ultimatum: come up with some new ideas by the end of the year, or else.
That deadline came and went, and all the while, North Korea’s economy continued to struggle. Sanctions are still place and are keeping Pyongyang from improving its economic outlook.
By January 1, 2020, North Korea was four years into the five-year plan and the country’s economy had not yet made any significant headway.
The forthcoming global pandemic would make things worse.
North Korea might be one of the most isolated countries in the world, but its close proximity and relations with China meant it couldn’t take any chances when the coronavirus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Foreign travel to North Korea was extremely limited even before the pandemic, but in January the country shut its borders, announced a “state emergency” and set up anti-epidemic headquarters around the country.
The decision made sense. Doctors who have defected in recent years paint a picture of a derelict health care system in dire need of upgrades. North Korea’s medical infrastructure would likely be overwhelmed in the event of a major outbreak. Strictly enforcing public health measures and closing the border have likely helped prevent the virus from spreading.
But even for a country known as the “hermit kingdom” that prides itself on independence – the country’s state ideology, Juche, is often translated as “self-reliance” – a lockdown comes with serious costs.
Pyongyang is heavily reliant on trade with China to keep its economy afloat. Clamping down on the border essentially cut North Korea off from its economic lifeline, and the total volume of trade between the two countries crashed before briefly rising again in June, according to Chinese customs data reported by North Korean news monitoring site NK News.
Historic flooding this summer brought on by major storms also strained resources.
With the pandemic raging and sanctions still in place, it was clear that Kim’s aim to give his people a “wealthy and a highly civilized life” would not pan out.
Kim threw in the towel in August, and KCNA reported that North Korea would form a new Party Congress to assess what went wrong. The North Korean leader is expected to announce a new five-year plan early next year.
The show will go on
Kim may not be able to celebrate economic glory on October 10, but experts predict he will use the opportunity to give the world a glimpse of some of North Korea’s newest advanced weaponry – perhaps the mysterious “strategic weapon” he teased at the start of the year.
Satellite imagery appears to show some movement at a shipping yard that’s known for submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) development, fueling speculation that Pyongyang may test a new, solid-fueled SLBM.
North Korea has tested liquid-fueled submarine missiles before, but their solid-fueled counterparts are more advanced – and easier to fire at short notice. A successful launch would represent another major milestone in North Korea’s push for modern weapons technology.
Whatever North Korea teases or tests, any new weaponry is likely to receive plenty of attention. Within North Korea, a show of military strength will serve as a timely distraction from the pandemic, the economy and Kim’s failed five-year plan.
The Kim family’s reign in North Korea has proven remarkably durable. Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, remained in power despite a famine that killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.
When Kim took power after his father’s death in 2011, he defied widespread expectations of his imminent demise, proving himself to be a shrewd and calculating politician.
Kim’s economic ambitions may not have materialized, but the North Korean leader is likely to be around for some time yet. The international community will be watching closely in January when he releases his next five-year plan, to see how the North Korean leader intends to build wealth in an economy heavily restrained by sanctions.