This is what was forecast in a column in the Washington Post by Victor Cha. He sees a combination of economic collapse, a massive spread of Covid-19, and a standard desire when a new US president to enter the office to be behind a possible outbreak of military assertiveness, possibly exacerbated by a much more serious collapse of the DPRK economy and society. I suspect this is overdone, but there are definitely some major problems going on there, with much of the new attention on this coming out publicly as a result of a major address by Kim Jong Un at the 8th (only?) Korean Workers’ Party Congress, where he openly admits failures to meet Five Year Plan targets for almost everything and calls for a massive tightening of policy with a reassertion of stricter state control of the economy.
I have double checked this by checking on the North Korean Economy Watch blog, which has an extensive report on Kim’s speech, and also seems to avoid the hysterical edge that Cha takes, although with the departure of his pal, Trump, along with all his internal problems, I can imagine Kim may well be tempted to stir up some sort of trouble. Anyway, some details.
Indeed, targets for almost everything have not been met, ag production, manufacturing, and more. The one manufacturing sector that seems to be holding up, and was described as “the core industrial sector,” something I have not see claimed before, is the chemical industry. Apparently it is doing so well there is almost no use for some of its output, although what is useful is going to be fertilizer and other inputs to agriculture.
Both the blog and Cha noted a major collapse of international trade, with trade with China down 70%, Cha’s leading evidence for a more general collapse, although the blog does not seem to be quite as dramatic about economic collapse and does not suggest that some broader or bigger one will happen, much less some major social upheaval as Cha argues. The blog notes that one failure of the plan has been that there was a goal to diversify trade away from such a focus on China, but that has not happened at all. This in effect pushes the DPRK back onto its traditional juche self-sufficiency ideological schtick.
There has been apparently a major crackdown on a lot of private businesses, which are now a much larger part of the economy than many realize. This is where Cha forecasts an upheaval, suggesting many North Koreans will resist being forced to turn over foreign hard currency for worthless North Korean won. The blog notes foreign currency traders have been especially hard hit in arrests. It also says that there is a push for more local control of a lot of the private firms, which are especially prominent in ag and food.
There is however, along with the chemical industry hanging in there, plans for more development of nuclear weapons and advanced delivery systems, with ICBMs capable of hitting the entire US now being developed. This is another development that has Cha worked up.
The blog also notes that there seems to be a renewed emphasis on control of “cultural production” and other such matters, all going along with the general tightening and move toward orthodox views. Indeed, the blog says this is the end of hopes many had that market experiments and other loosenings that went on early in Kim’s regime now seem to be seriously over.
Not clear what is going on with Covid-19, although part of the trade decline with China is due to DPRK sealing off borders seriously. They claim no cases, but Cha thinks the place is overrun with it. The blog reports nothing on this front. Whatever is going on is being kept secret.
Probably is hyperventilating and things will not be as bad in North Korea as he predicts, with Kim hopefully not going completely gonzo. But it does seem likely that the incoming Biden admin will face some sort of unpleasant challenge out of there, quite likely pretty soon, which may be quite difficult to deal with. Welcome to the White House, Mr, Biden!