Kim Announces Vague Five-Year Economic Vitalization Plan

In his three-hour speech Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced his plan to vitalize the country’s beleaguered economy. “It is imperative to carry through the five-year strategy for the state economic development from 2016 to 2020,” he said, according to Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s most authoritative newspaper.

Kim’s plan provides no tangible goals or overarching strategies, but the young leader, speaking at the Korean Workers’ Party 7th Congress, seemed to signal he was serious about economic development. His plan is the first since the Third Seven-Year Plan, which ended—two years late—in 1995.

Regardless of the absence of detail, Kim, by emphasizing the economy last week, essentially made himself accountable to a largely impoverished population that values prosperity far more than ideology. As is said these days, the North now has a “money culture.”

For the last five years, North Korea has had around 1% annual growth, so Kim has a base to build on. Yet he is trying to accomplish the improbable with his byungjin line, which promises economic development in tandem with the development of nukes and missiles.

His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, tried that toward the end of his rule and failed. His father, Kim Jong Il, had more modest goals. His songun—military first—policy fed the generals and admirals and their military but starved civilian society, literally and figuratively, and shrank the country’s economy.

As Kim Jong Un plots the country’s path to prosperity, the relatively tight international sanctions regime, put in place because of his enthusiasm for building weapons, will represent a major obstacle to his economic development aspirations. For example, Seoul closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex in February, depriving the regime of about $90 million in annual revenue. Moreover, UN Security Council Resolution 2270, adopted March 2, contains the tightest sanctions regime ever imposed on the North for its weapons programs.

So far, the international community, including China, has enforced the sanctions. If that solidarity holds, it will be difficult for Kim Jong Un to ramp up economic growth to meet the expectations he now cultivates. He has not articulated workable policies, nor does he have the resources or the foreign investment necessary to fuel robust economic expansion.

North Koreans have heard their leader announce that his five-year plan will deliver prosperity. They have heard it before, and it appears their tolerance is growing thin.

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