North Koreans Cynical About ‘Self-Reliance’ Messaging During Party Congress

Experts say that Kim Jong Un appears to admit that tough times lie ahead for the country.
2021-01-08
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North Koreans Cynical About ‘Self-Reliance’ Messaging During Party Congress North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo supplied by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) on January 8, 2021.
KCNA/via REUTERS

As North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party held its congress this week, residents of the impoverished country reacted cynically, saying that nothing that could be decided during the rare political meeting could improve their lives, sources in the country told RFA.

The eighth party congress opened Tuesday, with the country’s leader Kim Jong Un admitting in a speech that the country “fell a long way short of the set objectives” of the five-year economic plan introduced in 2016, the last time the congress met, which was the first such meeting since 1980.

North Korea’s economy is struggling under a legacy of mismanagement, international nuclear sanctions, closures of the border with China to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and a summer of natural disasters that tore through the country.

On Wednesday, Kim talked about policies that would pursue a “tangible turn in improving the people’s living standard,” and on Thursday vowed to expand the military to improve the country’s defense, state media reported.

Though the congress is widely covered by North Korean media in glowing terms, residents say that they are not fooled by what is very obviously propaganda.

“On the first page of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the Eighth Party Congress was introduced as ‘a congress of struggle and progress that will be a watershed moment in the development of our socialist society,’” a resident of North Hamgyong province, in the country’s northeast, told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday.

“But the residents are expressing their great distrust, saying that the congress will do nothing to improve the current difficult situation,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The source said that residents took particular issue with what they said were Kim’s admonishment of the party’s successes as a true testament of the country’s ability to rely on itself during his opening speech on Wednesday.

Without specifically saying what the successes were, Kim characterized them as “victories and events noteworthy in the 5,000-year history” of the Korean nation, and a “sure guarantee for reliably defending the destiny of the country and the people, generation after generation.”

“But the residents are saying that the people’s economy is hitting rock-bottom under U.S. sanctions and the shutdown of the border with China, and that we can’t solve this economic crisis by ourselves,” the source said.

Another source, a resident of the northwestern province of North Pyongan, told RFA that cynicism over the Rodong Sinmun’s reporting on the congress was widespread there as well.

“The Rodong Sinmun claimed that the congress would be an epoch-making steppingstone toward strengthening national power and improving people’s lives, but the residents… are really disappointed that the Highest Dignity is talking about self-reliance at a time like this,” the second source said, using an honorific title to refer to Kim Jong Un.

Self-reliance or 'Juche' is North Korea’s founding ideology. The term is often used in political writings and speeches as an expression of nationalism, and it is the country’s stated goal for the people to become self-reliant and strong so that true socialism can be achieved.

“The people’s economy is in shambles due to the sanctions and the coronavirus crisis. The people wonder if it can really survive on self-reliance,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“A mere re-emphasis on the strength of our socialist society basically means maintaining military-first politics based on nuclear arms, combined with personal self-reliance, so the residents are really disappointed,” said the second source.

The source noted that it was extremely unusual for Kim to have admitted the country’s failures.

“But rather than looking for the root causes of the major shortfalls of the goals of the last economic plan, the country is proposing as a resolution to strengthen its power and self-reliance, which has repeatedly failed so far, so the residents are very unhappy with it.”

Two U.S.-based experts told RFA Thursday that the admission of failure and the deference to self-reliance were acknowledgement that the next few years will be challenging for North Korea.

“His review of the last five years is very negative, extremely negative. I'm surprised at the words he used, of how... the economy [was] dead in the last five years. That's my first takeaway,” Georgetown University’s William Brown told RFA.

“I think it probably means that they're going to have very modest goals for the new five-year plan. And they won't get big numbers… ‘We need to do things better, not more,’ so I suspect it’s sort of dampened down expectations,” Brown said.

Brown contrasted the optimism that was prevalent among North Koreans prior to Kim’s summits with U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019.

“Some people thought ‘Oh great, finally we can get more food on our plates,’ and now two years later it's a very different dismal story. Now they are saying, ‘Wow we failed… Don't be too optimistic we have to do everything ourselves and we're not going to get foreign help, so buckle down,’” said Brown.

Ken Gause of the Virginia-based CNA thinktank said Kim’s message indicated “challenges ahead.”

“You don't see the rhetoric in there about how ‘We're going to make all these glorious advances in the near term.’ He is basically saying, ‘This is going be a long hard slog. We can do it, but we have to be all on same page.  I think that is his message to the party,” Gause said.

“I think they are very clear-eyed and very pragmatic in the way that they're thinking about this. Whether they have a prayer of making any progress is open to debate, but I think they are not trying to paper it over and [make excuses] for where we're at,” he said.

New Year’s letter

Ahead of the congress, Kim Jong Un penned a handwritten letter in lieu of his customary televised New Year’s address, in which he professed his gratitude for public support even in “difficult times.”

Sources told RFA that authorities ordered government offices to prominently display copies of the letter and hold ceremonies to declare allegiance to the party.

But the residents saw this gesture as a mere rehash of propaganda and meaningless political rhetoric of more than seven decades of dynastic rule under Kim, his father Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung.

“It was enshrined like a portrait, and party members and workers gathered at each factory office in the province to read the letter and pledge allegiance to the party’s Central Committee,” said a resident of North Pyongan who requested anonymity told RFA Monday.

The people, however characterized the letter as “nothing but a false document that deceives and ridicules the public,” said the third anonymous source.

Another source, a graduate of a university in North Pyongan, told RFA the same day that Kim’s letter is anything but inspirational.

“It’s all a political agitation strategy to try to proclaim public unity ahead of the party’s Eighth Congress… If you read between the lines, it means that those who harbor self-interest in the Central Committee will be punished relentlessly,” the college graduate said.

The last time a letter was given in lieu of a New Year’s address was in 1995, penned by Kim’s father and then-ruler Kim Jong Il, a year after regime founder Kim Il Sung died.

Reported by Jieun Kim, Jung Min Noh and Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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