North Korea holds ‘emergency’ lectures nationwide, but citizens left wondering why

Attendees thought a major announcement was in the works. Instead, they listened to another talk on patriotism.
By Jieun Kim, Jae Duk Seo, Hye Jun Seo, Soyoung Kim, Jeong Eun Lee and Seung Wook Hong
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North Korea holds ‘emergency’ lectures nationwide, but citizens left wondering why North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting of the politburo of the ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, January 19, 2022 in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) January 20, 2022.

When North Koreans got the word to report to work for a special announcement, many expected a major announcement. Instead, they said they heard more of the same: directives about loyalty to the country and its leaders.

A day after the 6th Politburo meeting of the 8th Central Committee, North Korea’s government raced to tell its citizens what had transpired in emergency lectures convened nationwide in every government enterprise and neighborhood watch unit on Thursday. The answer, apparently, was not much.

“Today, they suddenly organized a special lecture session at every factory in Chongjin,” a resident of the northeastern city’s surrounding North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service Thursday.

“In most factories these days there are material shortages, so other than a few officials, the employees do not report for work. Instead, they are assigned to go make money outside the factory, but since they wanted to convene a special lecture on short notice, they activated the emergency contact network to bring all the employees in,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

North Korea’s manufacturing sector has been hit hard by the closure of the border with China and suspension of all trade that started at the beginning of the pandemic and only recently resumed. Many factories lay idle, unable to produce anything for lack of imported raw materials.

The source said that some of the employees were worried that something serious had happened to warrant calling them away from their outside jobs for a meeting on such short notice.

“But they were frustrated when the lecturer … just delivered an order from the Politburo to disseminate the decisions made during the Politburo meeting,” the source said.

The order to disseminate was the main decision that was disseminated, along with another order to show loyalty and patriotism in the workplace, according to the source.

Residents in nearby South Hamgyong province were also surprised by the lectures organized on such short notice, as these types of lectures usually take time to plan, a resident of the province told RFA.

“During the special lecture they said that the Central Committee decided on how everyone should celebrate the 80th birth anniversary of Kim Jong Il on Feb. 16, and the 100th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung on April 15,” said the source, referring to the late former rulers of the country, the father and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.

“They also talked about the tense atmosphere surrounding the Korean Peninsula, ordering everyone to remember that they are descendants of the Great Leader, national founder Kim Il Sung, and warriors of General Kim Jong Un, both at work and at home.”

Dropping hints

The tenseness of the atmosphere likely refers North Korea recent tests of what it calls a hypersonic missile and precision strike weapons, which have drawn condemnations from the U.S. and South Korea.

North Korea said at the Politburo meeting that it would consider resuming nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches, which have been suspended since April 2018 due to a self-imposed moratorium, state media reported Thursday.

At Wednesday's meeting, in the presence of General Secretary Kim Jong Un, the politburo discussed countermeasures against the U.S. for its condemnations of recent weapons tests, which the report called “recklessly faulting for no reason the DPRK's legitimate exercise of sovereignty,” the report said, blaming the Biden administration for trying to deprive North Korea of its right to self-defense.

“The Political Bureau of the Party Central Committee unanimously recognized that we should make more thorough preparation for a long-term confrontation with the U.S. imperialism,” the report said.

“It concluded to take a practical action to more reliably and effectively increase our physical strength for defending the dignity, sovereign rights and interests of our state,” it said.

The end of the self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing is “only a matter of time,” the RAND Corp.’s Soo Kim told RFA.

“Kim may be eyeing a window of opportunity to pressure the U.S. to change its position on the North Korean nuclear issue. In signaling an end to the moratorium, perhaps Kim is articulating a ‘last, best chance’ for the Biden administration to take action before the situation escalates,” she said.

“However, I don’t think this means Kim will follow through right away. In making this announcement, he’s allowing both the U.S. and himself time to gauge and respond,” she said.

The North Korean regime is “doing the only thing it knows how to do,” David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told RFA.

“Kim Jong-un is executing a political warfare strategy against the ROK, the U.S. and the international community. It is also preparing its warfighting campaign to be able to attack South Korea. These two lines of effort are not mutually exclusive, they are in fact mutually supporting and reinforcing," Maxwell said.

“The more capability military systems the regime possesses, the more likely it can negotiate from a position of strength. And these actions and negotiations can contribute to driving a wedge in the ROK/US alliance to try to achieve one of the regime's key objectives: to drive U.S. forces from the peninsula,” he said.

The question about whether Kim Jong Un would remove the moratorium depends on several factors, including the Biden administration’s approach to denuclearization and the results of the upcoming South Korean election, Ken Gause of the Virginia-based CNA think tank told RFA.

“Kim Jong Un has to make an assessment about the Biden administration... The Biden administration is a very conventional administration and it's not likely to engage with North Korea the way the Trump administration did. And so, therefore, the possibility of getting sanctions relief is probably not very high,” Gause said.

“The only thing that kind of stands in the way of North Korea pushing off the moratorium is the fact that you still have a progressive administration in Seoul. … So, the question becomes not if they're going to get rid of the moratorium, but when are they going to get rid of the moratorium if the current situation stays,” Gause said.

North Korea must also consider its relationship with China if it decides to lift the moratorium, the Atlantic Council’s Robert Manning told RFA.

“I think that part of the reason for that they kept their moratoriums since 2018 is probably pressure from China that didn't want to see a new crisis between North Korea and the U.S.,” Manning said.

“I think anything that they do [that disrupts] the Olympics would be seriously frowned upon by Beijing,” he said.

The White House, the U.S. mission to the U.N., and the EU delegation to the U.N. reiterated to RFA that they preferred a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue, and voiced support for existing U.S. and U.N. sanctions.

Meanwhile, the South Korean National Intelligence Service on Friday said that North Korea is considering various means, including test-firing ICBMs, to pressure the United States. 

Analysts in South Korea said that China could potentially use North Korea as a tool to keep the U.S. in check, meaning that Beijing would prefer the status quo.

“Isn't North Korea's value increasing as China's countermeasure against the U.S.?” said Park Young-ho, director of the Peace Research Institute Seoul.

“It seems that China's position is that it would be better for the parties involved in the Korean Peninsula to manage and maintain the situation rather than getting angry with North Korea,” he said.

Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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