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N Korea at crossroads

Kim Jong Un lashes out at cabinet over economy, with US unengaged

North Korean leader sacks top economic official appointed a month ago

SEOUL -- Shelves are empty, sugar prices have soared and companies have ceased to operate. That was the sobering picture of life in North Korea painted by the Russian ambassador to Pyongyang this week in an interview with Russian media.

So it was not surprising that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was unhappy with his economic team as he attended the four-day meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party that wrapped up Thursday.

He fired the country's top economic official he appointed just a month ago. And in a report delivered to the meeting, he made clear the country's dire straits and blamed his cabinet for poor policy management. 

The nation's economic damage from international sanctions has deepened since the border closure a year ago that halted trade with China. 

Because of electricity shortages, "coal and other mines cannot but stop production and the people's lives have been disrupted," he said, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

The North Korean leader lashed out at the cabinet for failure to provide proper guidance for implementing the five-year development plan adopted at January's party congress. Local authorities and officials from major factories were also in attendance by teleconference.

In particular, Kim singled out the construction sector for setting a lower goal for homebuilding than the target set by the party congress. He blasted "self-preservation and defeatism" by officials who were trying to "keep up pretense of doing work" while using shortages of material and labor as "excuses."

"The persistence of such situation would result in gradual waning of the economic authority and control power of the state and in pushing state-run enterprises to illegal moneymaking," he said.

Kim stressed that "judicial bodies including prosecutors should increase their role to make sure the national economic plan is properly distributed and correctly executed" and go after "all kinds of illegal practices in economic activities."

O Su Yong was named director of the Department of Economic Affairs, replacing Kim Tu Il, who had just been appointed to the role at last month's party congress.

Reports from foreign officials stationed in Pyongyang confirm the economy's struggles.

"Over the months of self-isolation, the stock available on shelves has decreased to a minimum," Russian Ambassador Alexander Matsegora said in an interview this week with Russian news agency Interfax. Such staples as flour and sugar, when available, now cost "three or four times more" than they did before the coronavirus crisis, he said.

Matsegora also noted that "many enterprises have come to a standstill."

An official at the Czech Embassy in Pyongyang confirmed reports of power shortages to Radio Free Asia. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency says in its World Factbook that only 26% of the North Korean population had access to electricity in 2019.

The lack of necessary goods is squeezing the finances of local authorities. Slumping sales at the jangmadang informal markets that have proliferated under Kim Jong Un are cutting into government revenues from overseeing these markets, according to a report by the Korea International Trade Association.

Kim reiterated at this week's meeting that blocking the coronavirus is the nation's top priority. The border with China has been closed since January 2020 and will likely remain shut for some time. North Korean trade with China since last autumn has plunged more than 90% on the year, Chinese data shows.

The inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden has set back denuclearization talks that the North had hoped would lead to a lifting of sanctions.In Biden's first foreign policy speech at the State Department last week, North Korea was not even mentioned.

The new five-year economic plan calls for stronger top-down control with an emphasis on "self-reliance" and "self-sufficiency," but it does not lay out a viable vision for an economic turnaround.

Yet in an apparent signal that the plans for nuclear buildup and weapons development laid out at January's congress remain sacrosanct, Kim's report stressed that the army and the munitions industry must "thoroughly achieve and carry out the fighting goal and plans for this year ... without an inch of deflection."

North Korea's relationship with the U.S. does not appear to have been specifically discussed at the meeting. Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon was elected as a member of the Central Committee's Political Bureau, while Kim Song Nam, an official involved in diplomacy with China, was elected as an alternate member.

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