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Kim declares he may go on the offensive

Dec 31,2019
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks to the 5th plenary session of the 7th North Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee on Sunday. [YONHAP]
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stressed the “need to take positive and offensive measures” to uphold the country’s sovereignty and security “as required by the present situation,” according to a state media report on the second day of a key party conference held Sunday.

The relatively subdued message was far from the possible bombshell announcement officials in the United States and South Korea worried could emerge from the plenary session of the North Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee, though something worse could come in the following days.

Kim, according to a report by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Monday, delivered an address detailing Pyongyang’s agenda that placed a strong emphasis on economic development while describing “problems arising in the overall state building” that hamper growth.

KCNA said Kim “indicated the duties of the fields of foreign affairs, munitions and armed forces” while “emphasizing the need to take positive and offensive measures for fully ensuring the sovereignty and security of the country as required by the present situation.”

While short on details as to what such measures would entail, the remarks suggest North Korea could revert to a hard-line policy toward the United States given Washington’s tepid response to its repeated demands for sanctions relief.

In spite of a string of aggressive statements from top officials in recent months calling for the United States to lift its “hostile policy,” Washington continues to insist the North must move first toward a “final, fully verified” denuclearization before sanctions can be lifted.

In his speech, Kim underscored the idea of “intensively struggling against anti-socialism and non-socialism, strengthening the work of the working people’s organizations and tightening the moral discipline throughout society,” an apparent directive aimed at shoring up domestic support for his policies in the face of continuing international sanctions on the economy.

With South Korea’s national statistics agency reporting that the North’s economy shrunk by 4.1 percent in 2018, Kim’s emphasis on economic issues suggests the country’s crumbling economy is putting pressure on his regime.

North Korea’s foreign currency earnings are threatened as various countries send home North Korean laborers. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2397 required UN member states to send home North Korean workers by Dec. 22 in order to drain the regime of cash for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

According to analysts, around half of North Korea’s 100,000 overseas workers before 2017 have been repatriated, with China alone sending back “more than half” of all North Korean workers on its territory, according to Beijing’s report to the UN last year. Russia, another major host of North Korean labor, reported to the UN in March that work permits for North Koreans in the country dropped from around 32,300 in 2017 to 11,490.

On Monday, Japanese media reported Pyongyang is doubling down on efforts to maintain workers abroad, recently asking the Russian government if it can dispatch workers under study visas in lieu of work visas in order to skirt sanctions. North Korea experts like the South Korean Sejong Institute’s Cheong Seong-chang say China has been using this method to employ cheap North Korean labor in factories on its northeastern border.

Kim may be constrained in his options to provoke the United States lest diplomacy is derailed altogether with something like a long-range missile test.

Testifying to a continued vigilance over the regime, another U.S. Air Force RC-135W reconnaissance plane was spotted on a surveillance mission over the Korean Peninsula on Monday, which followed a flyby by an E-3C plane a day earlier.

According to Cheong’s analysis of this week’s Central Committee plenary session, the direction of the North’s foreign policies vis-a-vis Seoul, Washington, Beijing and Moscow are likely to be discussed on the third day of the conference, since Sunday’s discussions apparently featured an overview of economic and munitions issues.

This conference also marks the first time in almost three decades that a party Central Committee plenary meeting has exceeded two days, since a four-day session in 1990 overseen by the regime’s founder Kim Il Sung.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which said it was closely watching the event, said the meeting appeared to be notably larger than the last one in April, but similar in size to Kim Jong-un’s first Central Committee plenary meeting in 2013.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]


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