Kim Jong-un appeared to state North Korea is currently enduring the worst period of its history in a speech to members of his ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) on Wednesday.
Kim did not elaborate on what he was referring to when he said North Korea was in its “worst-ever” situation and, other than urging party leaders to address unspecified “shortcomings,” spoke much more optimistically than in other recent public statements, most notably in a tearful apology speech to the Korean people in October. The context of his remark was urging local Workers’ Party leaders to improve “people’s living standards,” suggesting that the situation which he lamented as historically poor was the nation’s economic one.
North Korea is currently under a strict sanctions regime imposed by the U.N. Security Council in 2017, following the nation’s latest illegal nuclear weapons test. Then-President Donald Trump convinced the Council — which includes North Korea’s closest ally, China — to impose the sanctions despite China and other members having veto power. While reports indicate China has regularly violated the sanctions, North Korea’s Chinese coronavirus lockdown appears to have kept much of China’s trade with the country on the other side of the border in 2020.
The speech followed Pyongyang announcing Tuesday that it would not participate in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, citing the Chinese coronavirus pandemic and a desire to protect its athletes from infection. North Korea currently claims to have documented zero cases of coronavirus in the country despite bordering some of the most severely affected states in the world, including China, where the pandemic originated.
In addition to the withdrawal from the athletic event, North Korea has sent other signals suggesting its claim of not having any documented coronavirus cases is masking a significant health crisis, including the abrupt announcement of the construction of a new hospital in Pyongyang, rolling lockdowns nationwide, the closure of its financially important border with China, and North Korea’s participation in Covax, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.)’s program to help poorer nations access coronavirus vaccines.
“Really heavy are the duties you have assumed in this pivotal period, an important phase in the strengthening of our Party and the development of our revolution,” Kim told cell secretaries of his communist party during remarks on Wednesday, according to Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). He urged party members to choose policies “at advancing our style of the socialist cause on a higher stage by achieving a tangible change and development in the economic work.” The economic work, he continued, required “improving the people’s living standards and in all other fields even in the worst-ever situation.”
“Although some successes have been achieved in the work of strengthening the Party cells and increasing their role since the Fifth Conference of the Cell Chairpersons of the Workers’ Party of Korea, there are quite a few shortcomings as well,” Kim acknowledged. “To immediately correct the shortcomings latent in the work of Party cells is an inevitable process that should be followed by our Party for its healthy and sustainable development; and only then can our Party creditably carry out its mission as the militant General Staff that leads the revolution and construction with its roots struck deep among the masses of the people. Even though the shortcomings may be partial and small, they should never be neglected.”
Despite addressing these unspecified “shortcomings,” Kim said he was “fully convinced that this conference will mark a significant occasion” and encouraged attendees by claiming, “the whole country is in a remarkably high spirit in the efforts for implementing the decisions adopted at the Eighth Congress of the WPK and the Second Plenary Meeting of its Eighth Central Committee,” which occurred at the beginning of the year.
Kim’s remarks at the opening of that Eighth Party Congress in January similarly described North Korea as going through “worst-ever trials” in its history, without quite specifying what challenges Kim estimated to be worse than anything since his grandfather founded the country in 1945.
“In this period the unprecedented, worst-ever trials put great obstacles on the road of advance of our revolution, but our Party achieved great successes through tenacious and accurate practical activities aimed at implementing its fighting programmes,” Kim said at the time. “During the period under review our internal force further expanded and strengthened, and the external prestige of the country was raised remarkably.”
In the same speech, Kim stated North Korea had failed its five-year plan in “almost all sectors” and needed to reconfigure its goals. Those remarks appeared to be a continuation of his apologetic remarks in October about his government’s failure to build a stable economy under communism.
“Our people have placed trust, as high as sky and as deep as sea, on me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily. I am really sorry for that,” Kim said at the time during a televised speech that showed him crying as he apologized. “Although I am entrusted with the important responsibility to lead this country upholding the cause of the great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il thanks to the trust of all the people, my efforts and sincerity have not been sufficient enough to rid our people of the difficulties in their life.”
Many observers last year suggested that Kim was making veiled references to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the country, which his regime has consistently affirmed has not affected a single person. Pyongyang has belied significant concern over the pandemic in the past week, first by withdrawing from the Olympics, then by once again announcing a new public health program and demanding the W.H.O. take bigger actions against the pandemic.
“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has decided not to participate in the 32nd Olympic Games during the general assembly to protect our athletes from the global health crisis situation related to the coronavirus as proposed by committee members,” a statement from the North Korean government published Tuesday read. Despite Pyongyang regularly insulting the Olympics host nation, Japan, and typically using its media platforms to accuse the Japanese of rampant human rights abuses, it did not appear to link its withdrawal from the Olympics to the fact that Tokyo will be hosting.
Minju Joson, a North Korean state newspaper, urged the W.H.O. on Wednesday to take a more authoritative role in combatting the pandemic.
“As the [Chinese coronavirus] swept across the world recently, a number of lives were lost and it has had a serious negative impact on the development of our society and economy,” the newspaper asserted. “We will strengthen cooperation with W.H.O. and actively push ahead with projects to improve public health.”
Minju Joson did not specify exactly how North Korea would “strengthen cooperation” on the matter or why it would have to, given that it has documented no cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began.