North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ripped into the performance of his Cabinet and fired a senior economic official he appointed a month ago, saying they’d failed to come up with new ideas to salvage an economy in decay.
The report by state media on Friday comes during the toughest period of Kim’s nine-year rule. The diplomacy he had hoped would lift U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear program is stalemated, and pandemic border closures and crop-killing natural disasters last year deepened the damage to an economy broken by decades of policy failures.
Some analysts say the current challenges may set up conditions for an economic perfect storm in the North that destabilizes markets and triggers public panic and unrest.
The current challenges had forced Kim to publicly admit that past economic plans hadn’t succeeded. A new five-year plan to develop the economy was issued during the ruling Workers’ Party congress in January, but Kim’s comments during the party’s Central Committee meeting that ended Thursday were rich with frustration with how the plans were being executed so far.
During Thursday’s session, Kim lamented that the Cabinet was failing in its role as the key institution managing the economy, saying it was producing unworkable plans while displaying no “innovative viewpoint and clear tactics.”
He said the Cabinet’s targets for agricultural production this year were set unrealistically high, considering limited supplies in farming materials and other unfavorable conditions. He said the Cabinet’s targets for electricity production was set too low, showing a lack of urgency when shortages could stall work at coal mines and other industries.
“The Cabinet failed to play a leading role in mapping out plans of key economic fields and almost mechanically brought together the numbers drafted by the ministries,” the KCNA paraphrased Kim as saying.
The KCNA also said that O Su Yong was named as the new director of the Central Committee’s Department of Economic Affairs during this week’s meeting, replacing Kim Tu Il who was appointed in January.
Kim Jong Un during the January party congress called for reasserting greater state control over the economy, boosting agricultural production and prioritizing the development of chemicals and metal industries. He also vowed all-out efforts to bolster his nuclear weapons program in comments that were seen as an attempt to pressure the new Biden administration.
Sectors such as metal and chemicals would be crucial to North Korean hopes to revitalize industrial production that has been decimated by sanctions and halted imports of factory materials amid the pandemic. However, most experts agree that North Korea’s new development plans aren’t meaningfully different from its previous ones that lacked in substance.
South Korean intelligence officials have said there are also signs that the North is taking dramatic steps to strengthen government control over markets, including suppressing the use of U.S. dollars and other foreign currencies.
Such measures, which are apparently aimed at forcing people to exchange their foreign currency savings for the North Korean won, demonstrate the government’s sense of urgency over its depleting foreign currency reserves, analysts say.