Date
22 January 2017
With his Cold War benefactors all but gone, Kim Jong-un is being forced to deal with a harsh reality -- either he reforms the economy or sinks with it. Photo: Japan Times
With his Cold War benefactors all but gone, Kim Jong-un is being forced to deal with a harsh reality -- either he reforms the economy or sinks with it. Photo: Japan Times

Kim Jong-un faces stark choice in historic party congress

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is trying to open his isolated economy to market forces.

Now, as he calls the first congress of the ruling party since 1980, he faces a stark choice, according to Bloomberg.

Since becoming supreme commander with the death of his father in late 2011, Kim has built his grip on power with purges of senior officials and other provocative actions, including two nuclear tests.

But as North Korea loses most of its Cold War benefactors and struggles from a series of droughts and famines, Kim is being forced to deal with a harsh reality — either he reforms the economy or sinks with it.

The first Workers’ Party congress under his leadership gives him an opportunity to set out his agenda and promote or demote officials to shore up his inner circle.

What is said and done in Pyongyang during the gathering may indicate how serious he is about economic reform and whether that may be trumped by his desire to preserve control, according to analysts cited by Bloomberg.

“He has implemented some reforms that have paid off and he now feels he has to re-calibrate the country’s principle ideology to explain those changes,” said Koh Yu Hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

“But drastically changing course won’t be easy because no matter how good change is, you don’t want to make it if it threatens your third-generation dynasty.”

The meeting highlights Kim’s increased diplomatic isolation and will provide a peek at his standing domestically.

When his grandfather Kim Il Sung hosted the last congress, North Korea had a better functioning economy and the event attracted officials from more than 100 nations.

This year, no foreign delegations are scheduled to attend and the economy is a fraction of South Korea’s.

The congress brings together hundreds of delegates from across the country and is expected to last several days.

Under Kim’s rule, North Koreans have continued to look to unauthorized markets to avoid starvation.

The unofficial economy, known as “jangmadang,” has shared the burden of feeding the population of 25 million.

Kim has been allowing greater private investment and let farmers take away more surplus production, according to analysts with contacts in the country.

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