North Korean Laws Since 2016: What They Imply for the Country’s Future

The Kim Jong Un regime, like his father’s, has repeatedly emphasized building a socialist rule-of-law state.[1] In accordance with this objective, North Korea has devoted great attention to making and amending laws. There were 205 known North Korean laws when Kim Jong Un assumed power in December 2011; this number had increased to 236 by December 2015, and 106 laws are known to have been revised during this period.

North Korea is notorious, however, for its secrecy and its laws are no exception. The North’s last known published compilation of laws occurred in December 2015, and very little reliable or comprehensive information is available about the enactment or revision of its legislation over the past five years.[2] Given the legislative record from 2011-2015, it is reasonable to presume that roughly 150 laws have either been enacted or amended since 2015, though less than a third of these have been identified (see the Appendices).[3] That said, most of the country’s laws since the 1990s fall into two categories: those for facilitating greater economic development and ones for strengthening social controls.

Laws for Economic Development

About half the North Korean laws and regulations known to have been revised following 2016 are targeted at promoting the economy in two main areas (see Appendices).

Foreign Investment and Foreign Trade

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A Principled US Diplomatic Strategy Toward North Korea

As a candidate for US president, Joseph Biden wrote: “I’ll engage in principled diplomacy and keep pressing toward a denuclearized North Korea and a unified Korean Peninsula, while working to reunite Korean Americans separated from loved ones in North Korea for decades.” At his confirmation hearing, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated that the Biden administration will carry out a policy review to assess what “can be effective in terms of increasing pressure on North Korea to come to the negotiating table, as well as what other diplomatic initiatives may be possible.”

President Biden now has an opportunity to set the foundation for a new US approach that advances stability and peace on the Korean Peninsula.[1] To do so, the new administration should guard against getting bogged down in an escalatory ladder with North Korea by initiating an early strategic opening with Pyongyang to test whether a serious diplomatic process can be sustained. The unachievable objective of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) should be dropped in favor of a more realistic step-by-step approach based on an equal commitment to denuclearization and peace. This approach should be backstopped by reinvigorated ties with South Korea and Japan, working with China while maintaining realistic expectations for its support, a streamlined and modernized sanctions regime, and bolstered deterrence of North Korea. Exchanges all the way up the diplomatic ladder from negotiators to leaders will be the only way to make progress.

What to Expect as the Biden Administration Enters Office

As he enters his tenth year as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un has shown himself to be a resourceful pragmatist who stands to maintain a strong position for the foreseeable future. Although North Korea continues to face serious vulnerabilities—including a troubling economic situation, flood damage, food insecurity and the coronavirus—the leadership’s staying power shouldn’t be underestimated. Once the pandemic eases, Chinese assistance will resume, the bite of sanctions will continue to diminish due to successful evasion strategies and lax enforcement, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will be keen to advance inter-Korean relations during the year or so he has left in office. Steady, unconstrained advances in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, as well as conventional weapons, are translating into a growing threat to the United States and allies, while providing Kim with the confidence to deter any outside threat against him.

Still, Kim appears to have left the door open to diplomacy with the United States. No doubt this is due to a mix of motives. He has a clear desire to modernize his economy, which he admits has not happened over the past several years. Reflecting traditional North Korean concerns about Chinese influence, he may hope to avoid overreliance on Beijing. And very aware of the power imbalance with the United States, Kim may see diplomacy as a useful tool to keep Washington at bay.

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North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Center: Working Through Winter

Commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center from January and February 2021 indicates that while the reactors remain inactive, the Uranium Enrichment Plant (UEP) has continued operations. Other low-level activities that began last fall, such as facility construction and refurbishment and floodwater control management efforts, have resumed after what appears to have been a short pause due to freezing temperatures.

The Reactor Area

Imagery from January through February 11 revealed no signs of renewed operations at the 5 MWe Reactor, although vehicles continue to be observed around the reactor area. No reportable activity was noted at the Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR).

Figure 1. Vehicles visible near 5 MWe Reactor.

Satellite image © 2021 Maxar Technologies. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Figure 2. Overview of ELWR and 5 MWe Reactor.

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The Road Ahead for the North Korean Economy After the Party Congress

(Source: Rodong Sinmun)

North Korea’s Eighth Party Congress and the follow-up meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) are now over. As the dust settles and instant commentary recedes, the question remains: Given the harsh economic realities facing the country today and for the coming year, what is the meaning of these events for both North Korea and the international community? Both the speeches and the budget plan that were presented reflect recognition of the country’s dire economic conditions and the leadership’s aspirations for economic development in the next five years. The regime and policymakers in the international community will face both challenges and opportunities in the coming months. The challenges include navigating the economy and society into a post-pandemic period that can lead to a resumption of economic stability and public safety and adapting to a changing external environment. There are also opportunities for strategic shifts of policy, diplomacy and external political and economic relations that could lead to a more secure and prosperous future for North Korea and the region despite the posturing at the Party Congress.

Macroeconomic Perspective

As Ruediger Frank highlighted in his recent article on the SPA meeting, the budget approved for 2021 of 0.9 percent growth for both planned revenue and expenditure is the lowest in decades and a sharp decline from the 4.2 percent adopted for 2020. These decisions reflect a realistic acknowledgment of the economic impact of sanctions, COVID-19 protection measures, natural disasters and failures of economic management, as well as expectations of continued hardships this year. However, the five-year economic plan presented at the Party Congress provides no explicit path for transitioning from management of the pandemic to restoring orderly economic activity. Rather, it spells out aspirational goals to build on the unfinished foundation of the economic strategy adopted in 2016.[1]

If North Korea remains isolated, the plan appears unachievable despite the call for self-reliance through import substitution and more effective management of the domestic economy. To meet the plan’s goals would require substantial foreign trade, access to technology transfers and mobilization of capital to support expansive investment plans. Achieving the external economic relations needed to complement domestic efforts to improve productivity and growth would require either ramped-up evasion of sanctions, large-scale trade and economic assistance from China, or a diplomatic breakthrough permitting a very different path of economic engagement with South Korea and the global community. While these are possible in the next few years, the alternative—and more likely—scenario would be a growing risk of continued deterioration of the economy and social conditions and shortcomings in implementing the plan.

North Korea is also compromised in its capacity to exercise effective macroeconomic management by its underdeveloped financial, legal and regulatory systems. Another problem is the relationship of the state to what has become a mixed economy featuring the growth of formal and informal markets, privately managed enterprises and privately mobilized and invested savings outside the banking system.

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New Life for the Third Network

When hundreds of houses and apartments were completed last year, North Korean media showed residents entering their new homes, welcomed with a pile of household goods. On the wall of each home was something else provided by the state: a dedicated receiver for the country’s secretive third radio network that relays daily news, instruction, and propaganda.

The network has been around since the 1950s and was understood to have become less important in recent years due to the country’s constant electricity problems, but that is set to change.[1]

Residents are shown entering a new home in Haksadae-ri, South Hamgyong province in a Korean Central Television news broadcast on November 7, 2020. (Source: KCTV via Martyn Williams)

At the recent Worker’s Party Congress, Kim Jong Un called for the third network (referred to as “wire broadcasting”) to be improved throughout the country:

“It is needed to readjust the wire broadcasting and cable TV networks, put the relevant technology on a higher level and provide full conditions for the people in all parts of the country, ranging from cities to remote mountain villages, to enjoy a better cultural and emotional life.”

Kim’s call comes as the country appears to be embarking on a new crackdown on foreign media and the third radio network could play an important part in that effort.

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Kim Jong Un’s Congress Report: More Economic and Social Controls on the Horizon

(Source: Rodong Sinmun)

Kim Jong Un’s report to the Korean Workers’ Party Congress in early January set out a clear overall direction for the North Korean economy.[1] Although the report itself contained little new policy, it emphasized Kim’s ambition to restore state leadership and control over economic affairs.[2] In the context of the vast growth of the role of semi-private economic activity in the past few decades, this is a concerning signal that the state may seek to limit market activity and semi-private business, both of which are crucial for the livelihoods of a major share of the population.

However, none of this should come as a surprise. Despite Kim Jong Un’s seeming willingness to experiment with loosened state control over the economy in the early years of his tenure, regaining state authority in areas where it was lost since the 1990s has been a central ambition throughout Kim’s years in power. This ambition is not limited to the economy alone.

Information Control

The government in totalitarian states has always regarded economic control as a central way to manage social structures, hand out privileges and punishment, and further their ideological agenda. Indeed, in their classical framework for totalitarianism as a system of governance, Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski posit a “centrally directed economy” as one of six necessary components for full state control over society.[3] Among the other five elements are authority of mass media and mass communications.

Thus, Kim’s emphasis on economic governance is part of a much bigger program of political and social control, and the Congress report made this clear with such expressions as the need for “a firm political climate” and “the struggle for eliminating all kinds of anti-people factors.”[4] This was partially a reference to those economic officials that Kim has long claimed are not working hard enough and with sufficient creativity in policy and management.

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Sohae Satellite Launching Station: Snow Removal Underway

Discussion of a “military reconnaissance satellite” in the summary of Kim Jong Un’s report to the Eighth Party Congress highlighted the continued importance of North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station. While recent commercial satellite imagery indicates no obvious signs of a potential launch or engine test in the near future, with active snow removal underway, the complex is being well maintained at a ready state.

Snow Removal at Sohae

Imagery from January 30, 2021 reveals the rapid removal of newly fallen snow throughout the Sohae complex, ensuring consistent access to the principal facilities. These include: the Vertical Engine Test Stand (VETS), the Horizontal Assembly Building, the administration and security headquarters, the visitor housing area, the VIP Observation Facility, and the NADA administrative building and helipad. In addition, lesser areas, such as the museum across from the VIP residence, instrumentation and tracking facilities, and even the small, probable camera/instrument pads, have all been cleared of snow.

While the rapid pace of snow removal around the complex is notable, efforts to clear the actual launch pad have been slower, with snow removal still in progress and the access roads to the fuel and oxidizer bunkers untouched. Consistent with past practice, snow removal at the complex is primarily performed manually, as demonstrated by the clearing patterns on the launch pad. Given the launch pad’s size, and the fact that there is no place nearby to push aside piled snow, it is not surprising that the effort would take longer than at other facilities.

The order in which facilities have been cleared of snow, with VIP facilities and the helipad completed before the launch pad, does raise the question of whether a VIP visit or inspection is on the horizon. However, there may also be no special meaning to the sequence of snow removal.

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Nampho Container Port Remains Active Despite Continued Border Closures

Commercial satellite imagery indicates the Nampho (Nampo) container port continued to handle cargo throughout 2020 despite North Korea’s border closure due to COVID-19. In contrast to the quiet cargo yards along the country’s land border with China, container volumes at Nampho fluctuated throughout last year, indicating the continued flow of international trade.

Nampho is North Korea’s largest west coast port and the closest major port to Pyongyang. Goods can travel from Nampho to the capital by motorway in a few hours.

Container Volumes

North Korea closed its borders in late January 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic; however, in mid-March, two container ships were observed at the container wharf. One of the ships appeared to offload containers, and the other was loaded with containers. On March 20, vehicles were observed clustered around the unloaded containers, likely transferring cargo for onward journey.

Figure 1. Two container ships observed in mid-March 2020.

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The Fallacy of North Korean Collapse

In an op-ed in the Washington Post on January 15, 2021, Dr. Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned that the United States may confront a military crisis arising from North Korea’s regime instability or its collapse. He argued that the North Korean economy could not survive “for another year or longer” due to existing sanctions and border blockades for quarantine measures, and thus the North Korean government may be tempted to take military actions against external enemies, or it may lose control of its nuclear weapons.

Cha is one of the most influential North Korea analysts in Washington; unfortunately, in this case, his argument is closer to fiction than reality. The inaccuracies and distorted description of North Korea’s situation themselves create risks. Such a view not only makes it more difficult to solve the North Korean nuclear problem, but also might even lead to policy miscalculations, such as a military option. In this article, we rebut Cha’s claim in hopes of providing a more accurate basis for considering diplomatic and policy options.

Flawed Economic Analysis

(Source: Rodong Sinmun)

First, there is almost no possibility that the North Korean economy will collapse. Cha argues that the recent North Korean economy is in a situation “comparable to the Great Famine in the 1990s.” However, the reality is entirely different from his assertion. North Korea experienced a terrible crisis in the years after the end of the Cold War, during which about two million people starved to death despite foreign aid. There were no strong sanctions and a border blockade at that time, but there was mass starvation. On the contrary, recently, starvation is not pervasive in North Korea even with tough economic sanctions and border blockades as far as we know.

Why does this difference exist? The reason is that North Korea has already developed internal conditions for survival with which it can manage to muddle through strong sanctions. Since the early 2010s, the government in Pyongyang has pursued an economic policy of reform and openness to strengthen its survival capacity and resilience. In 2018, its national strategy shifted from a military-first approach to an economy-first one. New economic changes in North Korea encompass a wide range of areas such as facilitating import substitution and domestic production, adopting competitive systems, expanding markets, reforming financial institutions, establishing commercial banks, and promoting science and technology. However, the opening-up policy has been postponed because of strong economic sanctions caused by North Korea’s nuclear program.

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Denuclearization of North Korea Is Possible

“North Korea wants normal relations with the US and acceptance as a nuclear weapons state,” is a refrain I have heard often during 13 years of routine negotiations and discussions with senior North Korean officials. It started in 2003 with formal Six Party Talks negotiations in Beijing, continued in the following years with senior North Korean officials in Pyongyang, Singapore and Europe, and ended in September 2016 in a Track 1.5 conference in Kuala Lumpur with the North Korean vice foreign minister. In all these discussions, North Korea argued for normal relations with the US and acceptance as a nuclear weapons state, as the US did with Pakistan, maintaining that it would be a good friend to the US and a responsible nuclear weapons state.

The US response over this period has been consistent: It would never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state for two main reasons. First, due to concerns about a nuclear arms race in the region among countries like South Korea and Japan, who have expressed interest in also pursuing nuclear weapons despite US extended nuclear deterrence commitments. And second, because of the possibility of nuclear weapons and/or fissile material finding their way from North Korea to rogue states and non-state terrorist actors. Interestingly, the North Korean officials I spoke with seemingly accepted this US position and, once presented, stopped pursuing this issue. It seemed at the time that they were simply reciting a required talking point, which once covered, they could move on to other subjects.

What was consistent during these discussions was that once the subject of retaining nuclear weapons was off the table, these senior North Korean officials then spent considerable time talking about their desire for good relations with the US; maintaining their pursuit of nuclear weapons was for security and deterrence purposes. With security assurances and normal relations with the US, nuclear weapons would not be needed.

During the past 26 years, we have had fleeting success in negotiations with North Korea. The 1994 Agreed Framework committed North Korea to freeze and eventually dismantle its plutonium production reactor at Yongbyon in exchange for the US (and others) building two light water reactors in Kumho, North Korea. It also committed the North to stop construction of two additional nuclear reactors: a 50 MWe reactor at Yongbyon and a 200 MWe reactor at Taechon.

This agreement ended in late 2002 when North Korea was accused of having a secret uranium enrichment program for nuclear weapons, a violation of the spirit of the Agreed Framework. The US halted construction of the light water reactors, and North Korea, after an eight-year freeze on plutonium separation at their 5 MWe reactor, reactivated it and commenced with the reprocessing of spent fuel rods for nuclear weapons. The 50 and 200 MWe reactors were never reactivated.

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What Does South Korean President Moon Want From the Biden Administration?

(Source: Cheong Wa Dae)

A lot has happened in Seoul and Washington in the last ten days. A couple of days before US President Joseph Biden was inaugurated, South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a press conference covering domestic and foreign policies. His responses to journalists’ questions clearly laid out South Korea’s formulation for reinvigorating both inter-Korean engagement and US-DPRK nuclear diplomacy in the final year of his term. However, Moon’s administration has recently been under fire domestically and abroad for its policies over the anti-leaflet law[1] and its response to the North Korean military’s killing of a South Korean civil servant—criticisms which reflect broader dissatisfaction with Moon’s pro-DPRK engagement policies since 2017 and the perception that they seem to serve North Korea’s interests while jeopardizing those of South Korea and the United States. Moon’s remarks that the Biden administration offers a turning point for renewing US-DPRK diplomacy and inter-Korean talks are likely to inflame these criticisms. What should we make of these comments? What does Moon expect from the new administration when it comes to US-DPRK diplomacy?

A Biden-Kim Summit?

Perhaps the most controversial of Moon’s responses was his urging of the Biden administration to build upon the Trump administration’s achievements. This may seem ridiculous for those who have criticized the previous administration for legitimizing Kim Jong Un’s regime. However, Moon’s statement has been interpreted narrowly and therefore needs to be viewed in the context of his other comments. In his response to one question, Moon pointed out that the Trump administration had both successes and failures (“트럼프정부의 성공경험과 실패에…”) from which the Biden administration could learn.

The success refers to the Singapore Declaration signed at the first Trump-Kim summit in June 2018. Moon considered this an achievement for three reasons. First, it had been 13 years since North Korea signed the September 2005 Joint Statement, which committed the DPRK to abandon its nuclear program. Second, the Singapore Declaration reaffirmed this commitment to complete denuclearization just seven months after the North formally declared itself a nuclear power. Third, previous denuclearization agreements focused on limiting and reducing North Korea’s production of fissile material; if the DPRK carried out the pledge made in Singapore, it would get rid of all its nuclear warheads as well as its fissile material production capability. This context helps explain why the Singapore Declaration is considered an achievement from Moon’s perspective.

At the same time, however, Moon admitted the Singapore Declaration had its limitations because it is an agreement on “principles” (“원론적인 선언”) that does not provide a concrete plan for denuclearizing the North. Moon seems to be suggesting the Trump administration’s top-down approach to diplomacy led to the “no-deal” Hanoi Summit, which epitomized the “failure” of the Trump administration. His awareness of the Biden administration’s preference for a “bottom-up” approach to diplomacy, coupled with his call for elaborating on the principles contained in the Singapore Declaration, hints at what Moon thinks would be a winning formula for a breakthrough in nuclear diplomacy with North Korea: dangling the carrot of a Biden-Kim summit—following appropriate working-level preparations—to catalyze a renewal of US-DPRK talks. This is reflected in Moon’s belief that Kim is still willing to denuclearize and that the onus is on the US to restart talks. This optimistic perception is questionable based on the most recent Party Congress in Pyongyang highlighting the need for North Korea to adhere to its policy of nuclear-based military deterrence. Nevertheless, it is certain Moon does not want the Biden administration to walk away from the Singapore Declaration.

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Why the United States Needs a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights

As the Biden administration turns its attention to North Korea, it should signal its support for human rights by reappointing a special envoy for the position on North Korea left vacant for the past four years. The reappointment will give meaning to US President Joseph Biden’s vow to return values to US foreign policy. It will also alert North Korea that ending its isolation and joining the rest of the international community, and especially normalizing its relations with the United States, will have to be accompanied by a lessening of oppression of the North Korean people. Denuclearization will remain the overriding objective of US policy toward North Korea, but human rights and humanitarian issues will play an important part.

Background

In 2004, Congress, with strong bipartisan support, created the special envoy position “to coordinate and promote efforts to improve respect” for the human rights of North Korea’s people. The envoy’s responsibilities, as set forth in the North Korea Human Rights Act, include “discussions with North Korean officials” and “international efforts” with other states, especially at the United Nations. Congress reauthorized the Act three times, most recently in 2018 with a unanimous vote. But the Trump administration, alleging the need to save costs, proposed “dual-hatting” the envoy’s functions to another US Department of State position, which was then eliminated. In the House of Representatives, the Republican and Democratic co-chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission appealed unsuccessfully to the president in 2018 to fill the post so that human rights could be effectively incorporated into talks with North Korea.

Why Now?

President Biden has expressed his commitment to restoring values in American foreign policy and more broadly, to promoting human rights and democracy abroad. To dismiss the human rights situation in North Korea would be contrary both to US values and its national security interests. What makes the reappointment of a special envoy so compelling is the extraordinary nature of North Korea’s human rights situation. For the past 75 years, Kim family rule has largely cut off the people of North Korea from the rest of the world, put them under heavy surveillance, and enforced its authority with political prison camps, public executions, forced labor and other grave abuses. Many have had to endure chronic hunger, poor or non-existent medical care and extreme poverty.

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SPA Session: Lowest Official Growth Rate in Decades

(Source: Rodong Sinmun)

The annual session of the North Korean parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), was held on January 17, 2021. The SPA’s role is to implement the strategic decisions made by the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP); the session was thus directly connected to the decisions made at the Eighth Party Congress, which had taken place just days before. As usual, the key documents were the report on the economy by a representative of the Cabinet, and the report on the state budget.

The most striking detail from these reports is the historically low projected growth rate of state budget revenue of only 0.9 percent. This is the lowest official rate since the economic crisis of the mid-1990s. It corrects the unrealistically high growth expectation for 2020, shows the readiness of the North Korean leadership to be relatively honest about economic difficulties, and offers a glimpse into the cautious outlook of the North Korean state on its economic development in 2021.

Speech by the Prime Minister: Echoing Kim Jong Un’s Report at the Party Congress

Highlighting the leading role of the KWP over the parliament, a number of high-ranking party members were present, including three out of five members of the Presidium of the Politburo. Among them, two hold key posts in the parliament and in government: Choe Ryong Hae, who is president of the SPA Presidium and the first vice-chairman of the State Affairs Commission, and Kim Tok Hun, the prime minister.

The report by the prime minister followed the usual choreography of such events. He first looked back at past achievements, which were all credited to Kim Jong Un’s wise leadership. He then echoed the leader’s critical remarks at the Party Congress in the same relatively careful and general way by pointing at “serious mistakes” (심중한 결함들). It should be noted that, unlike the official English translation, the Korean version of the report included a few more details, including the failure to meet the targets of energy production and criticism of Cabinet members for formalism and sticking to “outdated methods” (구태의연한 사업방식).[1]

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Post-Party Congress Clean-up in Pyongyang

Recent commercial satellite imagery of Pyongyang shows Kim Il Sung Square has quickly returned to normal just days after a major military parade.

The parade took place on the evening of January 14 after the conclusion of the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Imagery from the morning of January 17 shows work crews in the square dismantling a few final parade structures, with little evidence remaining of the parade and festivities that took place just days before.

Figure 1. Banners and temporary viewing stands can be seen on the front of a ministerial building in Kim Il Sung Square during a Pyongyang city rally on January 15, 2021.

(Source: KCTV via Martyn Williams)

The structure that was built directly in front of the viewing stand was revealed in TV coverage to be an enclosed area for the orchestra. The structure was reminiscent of what might be found at an upscale garden party in the West, and was probably necessitated by the extreme cold, which would affect both the instruments and the musicians who would be seated for at least an hour.

Figure 2. The enclosed bandstand structure in the middle of Kim Il Sung Square during the military parade on January 14, 2021.

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Kim Yo Jong Stays in the Picture

(Photo: Thuận Khánh)

Despite her auspicious family ties and her perch at the top of North Korea’s political heap, the career of Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s younger sister, will proceed along the same path as other DPRK elites. Whatever substantive positions and/or political offices she holds will be affected and shaped by the current prevailing political and policy environments.

At the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), much was made of Kim Yo Jong’s “demotion” from the Political Bureau (Politburo), the party’s lead power organization. However, this interpretation fails to recognize the broader context of this move. She and her peer group of core DPRK elites in the Central Committee apparatus all saw their job responsibilities and titles redefined and changed at this Congress. At the same time, she was one of the last of the appointments to the Political Bureau made during the 2018 “charm offensive” to remain until now, as most of the other officials associated with it have either retired or been reassigned.

Furthermore, when assessing Kim’s career, her role as the gatekeeper for Kim Jong Un remains intact, a crucial position in a political system like North Korea’s. Finally, when looking at the potentially decades left in Kim’s career, this move off of the Political Bureau at her young age is neither the first nor likely the last time she will experience this kind of power transition as she carves out her space in the regime.

Kim Yo Jong and the Political Bureau

Most of the attention on Kim Yo Jong’s current status focuses on her being dropped as an alternate member of the Political Bureau. This was not the first time this has happened. She was first elected to the Political Bureau in 2017 and then removed in 2019, which also sparked media reporting speculating that she had fallen out of favor or been demoted.[1] She was later elected back to the Political Bureau in April 2020 before being removed during the first plenary meeting of the Eighth Party Central Committee, held on the sidelines of the Eighth Party Congress.[2]

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The Sepho Tableland: Changing Food Production in Marginal Areas

North Korea’s topography, climate, and soil quality make its endeavors to be self-sufficient in food production a constant struggle. Despite being about the size of the US state of Mississippi, roughly 120,538 square kilometers, less than 20 percent of that land is arable. The majority of the country is rugged mountain terrain with dry conditions and poor soil. Even in the arable regions in the southern and west coast provinces, the climate dictates relatively short growing seasons.

With already limited agricultural potential, the regime recognized around 2011 that its preferred livestock, mainly chicken and pigs, were also dependent on the country’s agricultural production for feed, placing greater demands on overall food production. This realization led the regime to shift its focus, promoting instead the raising of grass-fed livestock, such as goats, sheep, rabbits, and cattle. This also led to a decision to shift farming practices in higher elevations, where soil and climate conditions were suboptimal, from crops to grassy fields for grazing.

The Sepho Tableland Development Plan

In 2012, North Korea initiated the transformation of the Sepho Tableland in line with a new strategy of turning “grass for meat.” It is an area covering over 30,000 hectares of land at elevations ranging from 300 to 600 meters, and stretching across the counties of Sepho, Phyonggang, and Ichon in Kangwon Province.

Kim Jong Un provided an overview of the changes that were needed in the region in a speech about animal husbandry in January 2015, reported by the Pyongyang Times. While the climate and topography were suitable for grazing, the existing vegetation was not. Weeds and scrub bushes had to be reduced, and new grasses introduced that were scientifically selected to contain the proper nutrition for the livestock.

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North Korea’s Eighth Workers’ Party Congress: Putting Things Into Context

There has been a lot written about the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), some of it good and worth reading. All of it is necessarily from the perspective of observers far outside the assembly hall. No doubt, sitting in that vast space, literally filled to the gills with people, was not the most wonderful way to spend January 5-11. For anyone crammed in the back, where it was impossible to see much of anything, it was no doubt even less enjoyable. Still, seeing was not the point of the meeting; there wasn’t really much to see. They damn sure better to have been able to hear everything, though. The entire nine-hour work report delivered by Kim Jong Un, spread over several days, was probably not equally important to every attendee. A few might, if so inclined, have daydreamed and doodled through some of it, though always careful to look alert and interested.

However, there are several areas that would have been especially important to the majority of delegates. First and foremost, most ears were likely tuned to what was said on economic issues. Secondly, military and defense issues would have demanded attention, either because the listeners were directly involved in that sector, or because there is a general understanding of the impact military matters has on other areas of life. All in the hall would know that belts had been tightened to pay for the military for years and still could be again. A third subject, joined at the hip with military matters, would be diplomacy, though few would know much about that, and so a good deal of what was said would fall into what we might label as exhortation for domestic purposes.

Analytic Methodology

What little we can know at this point about the Eighth Party Congress—and it is very little because Pyongyang did not want the outside world to know much—depends in large part on comparison with the Seventh Party Congress in 2016 and most of the plenums between then and now. That reality, in turn, makes it necessary to take a little detour here to look at the question of methodology, loose rules of analysis we don’t impose on the North but are derived from experience and observing the North’s own practice. Boiled down, there are three key elements: comparison, context and actual contact.

Comparison: No single rhetorical formulation in a North Korean speech or media commentary can, by itself, carry much analytical freight. The question always has to be, what are the additional angles and precedents that need to be explored to understand a formulation in all of its dimensions? What makes it a threat? A concession? A change in line?Context: In addition to comparison, context is crucial. What are the circumstances surrounding decisions and within which rhetoric is repeated or changed? Interpreting Kim Jong Un’s remarks at the April 2019 Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) meeting made little sense without reference to the failed Hanoi Summit only two months before, not simply in terms of the explicit references, but the overall tone.Contact: Finally, what can we know from practical, real-life experience? How do the public formulations relate to actual policy evolution? Public rhetoric is not the same thing as policy. The former is usually couched in more categorical, rigid language. Much of the language most of the time—especially when it is carried in domestic media—on standing up to the United States fits into this category. But often, these same formulations, while on first hearing may seem tough, are actually crafted to provide flexibility at a later date. North Korean positions can (and do) change. In the case of a Party Congress, the time horizons for goals and projections are mixed, often without clear lines drawn.

Economy: No Retreat From Reform

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Key Results of The Eighth Party Congress in North Korea (Part 2 of 2)

(Source: Rodong Sinmun)

The Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) was held in North Korea earlier this month. The first part of this report highlighted mainly economic issues such as the growing dominance of the state over the market, an increasingly domestic focus of economic policy, parallels to South Korea’s development in the 1970s and details on key industries. Part two focuses on internal North Korean dynamics, the DPRK’s national security policy and its foreign relations.

12) Role of the party further strengthened, Congresses to become regular events.

This is a consistent development that we have observed since 2010, when a rare party event was used to introduce Kim Jong Un to the public. In late 2011, it was the party who acted as the kingmaker and pronounced Kim as the new leader. In 2016, the first Party Congress after 36 years was held under his guidance.

In 2021, party statutes have been changed so that the Congress is supposed to be held every five years. Moreover, conferences of secretaries of party cells and secretaries of primary party committees are also to be convened every five years. The subordinate role of the military as “the revolutionary force of the party” has been stressed explicitly; a military parade was held after the Eighth Congress to emphasize this.

13) Kim Jong Un replaces his late father as general secretary of the party.

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Key Results of The Eighth Party Congress in North Korea (Part 1 of 2)

The Eighth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP, or simply the party) was held in the DPRK from January 5 to January 12, 2021. Such events are rare occasions during which the work of the past is officially analyzed, and strategic goals are set for the immediate and mid-term future. The last such Congress occurred in 2016, after a hiatus of 36 years since the Sixth Party Congress of 1980.

The Congress highlighted the current position of North Korea’s leadership on a number of key issues. The strategy for economic development is inward-oriented, the role of the state is to be strengthened, no new reforms are planned, and no major political purge took place. There were a few interesting parallels to South Korea’s development strategy under Park Chung-hee. Improved relations with China since 2016 were acknowledged, while the tone on relations with the US and South Korea was far less positive. North Korea will stick to its policy of military deterrence, based on the development and further modernization of its nuclear arsenal. A trend towards burden-sharing in the operative leadership of the country could be observed, and there were some implied adjustments to the official ideology.

This first of two installments summarize several key takeaways from the Party Congress. The first half featured here are more economically oriented. Whereas the remaining set, covered in the next report, will address broader political, ideological and structural changes, as well as external relations.

1) The Congress took place at an unusual time, lasted longer and had more attendants than before.

The eight days of the Eighth Congress are a substantial extension compared to the five days of the Seventh Party Congress of 2016. Back then, there were 3,467 delegates and 1,545 observers.[1] This time, 5,000 delegates and 2,000 observers participated.[2]

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North Korea’s Newest Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile, Same as the Old One?

Last week, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un presented a detailed report to the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea highlighting the nation’s successes in building a nuclear force while also laying out the party’s plans for the next five years. Kim pledged to “further strengthen the nuclear war deterrent” by developing and fielding several new systems, including “ultra-modern tactical nuclear weapons,” “hypersonic gliding flight warheads,” “multi-warhead” missiles, reconnaissance satellites, a nuclear-powered submarine, and solid-fuel, land- and submarine-launched, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).[1] However, these ambitious projects will take years to develop fully. At the very least, North Korea will need to subject the new systems to testing programs that are visible to outside observers, thereby providing advanced warning of any new capabilities.

The Latest Military Parade

A few days after the Party Congress concluded, Kim oversaw North Korea’s latest military parade on the evening of January 14. The parade featured a variety of tactical missiles with ranges below 1,000 km, three of which have already been flight tested and are likely deployed with the military. These operational systems include the “super-large” multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS), designated KN-25 by US intelligence, as well as the KN-23 and KN-24 precision-guided missiles seemingly inspired by the Russian Iskander and the US Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), respectively.

A new tactical missile was presented at the tail end of the parade, carried in pairs on a five-axle transporter-erector-launcher (TEL). The missile’s external dimensions cannot be determined with confidence, although the diameter is likely about one meter, which translates to an estimated range of 700 to 900 km. No aerodynamic surfaces or fins can be seen, suggesting the missile relies on jet vanes inserted into the exhaust gases for directional and attitude control during the boost phase.

The lack of aerodynamic surfaces also indicates that it performs like a standard ballistic missile, traveling on a parabolic arc toward the target, unlike the KN-23 and KN-24, which rely on flattened trajectories that do not exit the earth’s atmosphere and use fins to provide post-boost and terminal maneuverability. The new missile is assumed to be powered by solid fuel, although there is no definitive indicator of that.

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