North Korean leader Kim Jong-un put the economy front and centre of an agenda-setting speech at the end of a key ruling party meeting, state media reported on January 1, with no mention of the US.
Instead of the policy positions on diplomacy for which Kim’s New Year statements have been closely watched in recent years, he focused on food security and development at a plenary of the central committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
The impoverished, nuclear-armed nation has been under a rigid self-imposed coronavirus blockade that has hammered its economy.
In a speech at the end of the party meeting on December 31, Kim acknowledged the “harsh situation” in 2021 as he laid out plans for the coming year, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
He described the challenges of 2022 as “a great life-and-death struggle” and set “an important task for making radical progress in solving the food, clothing and housing problem for the people”, KCNA said.
The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting border closure saw the country record its biggest economic contraction in over two decades in 2020, according to the South Korean central bank.
Concerns have grown about a full-blown food crisis in North Korea, and a UN human rights expert warned in October that the most vulnerable were “at risk of starvation”.
Kim, who took power just over a decade ago after the death of his father Kim Jong-il, said battling the pandemic was one of the main goals for the coming year.
“Emergency epidemic prevention work should be made a top priority in the state work,” Kim said according to KCNA.
Analysts pointed to the impact of Covid as the reason for the sharpened focus on the economy.
“The pandemic continues to constrain North Korea’s diplomacy, decimate its economy, and make border controls the top security issue,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at the Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told AFP.
Kim did not mention the US or directly address foreign policy.
But he said Pyongyang would continue to build up its military capabilities keeping in mind “the military environment of the Korean peninsula” and the changing international situation.
That includes ensuring loyalty and obedience in the military, improving militias, and “the production of the powerful equipment corresponding with the modern warfare”, KCNA quoted Kim as saying.
It did not provide further details.
“Overall, Kim might be aware that revealing sophisticated military development plans while people are suffering food shortages and harsh conditions outside of Pyongyang might not be such a good idea this year,” tweeted Chad O’Carroll of specialist website NK News.
“North Korea is more or less in survival mode for 2022 – and doesn’t really know what to do... [about] foreign policy right now.”
Pyongyang is under multiple sets of international sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, which have progressed rapidly under Kim.
But the worsening economic situation during the pandemic has not blunted those programmes, and North Korea has continued to pursue weapons development, a UN report said in October.
In 2021, North Korea said it successfully tested a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile; a long-range cruise missile; a train-launched weapon; and what it described as a hypersonic warhead.
The country has stayed away from talks on its nuclear programme since the collapse in 2019 of the dialogue between Kim and then US president Donald Trump.
Under Trump’s successor Joe Biden, the US has repeatedly declared its willingness to meet North Korean representatives, while saying it will seek denuclearisation.
But Pyongyang has so far dismissed the offer, accusing Washington of pursuing “hostile” policies.