North Korean leader Kim Jong Un admitted that the country’s economic development plan had failed in “almost every way” when he opened a rare ruling Workers’ Party congress, state media reported on Wednesday.
Kim called the past five years “unprecedented” and “the worst of the worst” for the country.
“The safest and fastest way to tackle the multiple challenges we are currently facing is to make every effort to strengthen our own power and capacity for self-reliance,” he said as quoted by Yonhap News Agency.
The rally is the first of its kind in five years, only the eighth in the history of the nuclear-weapon country, and comes weeks before US President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
Relations with Washington have stalled since talks between Kim and President Donald Trump stalled over sanctions relief and what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in return.
At the same time, the North is more isolated than ever after its borders were closed last January to protect itself against the coronavirus which first appeared in neighboring China, a key ally.
The congress opened in the capital on Tuesday, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
Images from the ruling Rodong Sinmun party newspaper showed 7,000 delegates and participants crammed into the cavernous hall, none of them wearing masks.
On the first day of his review of the work, Kim said that the results of the latest five-year economic development strategy “were grossly below our targets in almost every area,” KCNA reported.
The plan was quietly scrapped ahead of schedule last year.
“We intend to analyze in depth … our experiences, our lessons and the mistakes made,” added Kim, who wore a black suit and a lapel badge of her father and grandfather.
The KCNA transcript does not specify any of the errors or give any indication that Kim mentioned Washington or Seoul in his speech, which is scheduled to continue on Wednesday.
Rob McBride of Al Jazeera, reporting from the South Korean capital, Seoul, called Kim’s confession “unbelievably” a failure.
“This illustrates how dire the economic situation in North Korea is currently,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has increased pressure on the North, with Pyongyang blocking itself far more effectively than even the most ardent supporter of sanctions could ever hope to secure.
Trade with China has declined to a tiny fraction of the usual level, while many foreign embassies have closed or significantly reduced their operations.
Regarding the global pandemic, Kim praised party workers for ensuring “stable situations against the coronavirus from start to finish.”
They had “resolutely overcome the difficulties in the face of an unprecedented and unprecedented global health crisis,” he added.
Pyongyang insists it hasn’t had a single case of the disease – observers doubt the claim – but the summer flooding has put even more strain on its finances.
Preparations for the parade
Congress is the highest meeting of the ruling party – a large political centerpiece that strengthens the authority of the regime and is closely watched by analysts for signs of policy change or change in its upper ranks.
Kim’s sister and key advisor, Kim Yo Jong, was among the elected officials at the congress praesidium, a sign of her growing position.
The last congress in 2016 – the first in nearly 40 years – consolidated Kim Jong Un’s status as the supreme leader and heir to his family’s dynastic rule, which spanned 70 years.
The current meeting reflects the “urgent need for internal solidarity,” said defector-turned-researcher Ahn Chan-il of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul.
“The party convention must serve as a spark to restore the faith of the frustrated public.”
The preparation for the congress saw the entire country mobilized in an 80-day campaign to stimulate the economy, with extra long working hours and extra tasks for many.
The event precedes Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration and analysts say the North will seek to send a message to Washington, while being cautious; the new US president called Kim a “thug”, while Pyongyang called him a “mad dog”.
“With Trump’s departure, North Korea will reaffirm its traditional hostile stance against the United States with a clue as to the type of its next provocation,” said Go Myong-hyun of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies.
Satellite imagery showed that “preparations for a parade appear to have picked up the pace,” according to the respected US 38 North website, just months after Pyongyang by far unveiled its largest missile to date.
A parade also accompanied the 2016 party convention, a meeting that lasted four days.
Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, never held a party convention during his reign, but the current leader appears to follow a regular five-year schedule.
“Kim Jong Un is seeking regime stability and party normalization,” said Shin Beom-chul of the Korea National Strategy Research Institute. “Holding the congress in 2016 and then in 2021 is standardization.”