Can Kim fix North Korea’s economy?

Story highlights

  • Rare party Congress set to open Friday
  • Meeting comes as Kim Jong Un pushes potentially contradictory nuclear and economic ambitions
And since taking over from Kim Jong Il in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has pursued twin ambitions — his “Byongjin” policy of nuclear and economic development.
The policy is coming into sharp relief this week as the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea’s will hold its 7th Congress, a rare and potentially significant gathering, on Friday.
The nuclear side of Kim’s approach has been particularly visible in recent months, but the congress is expected to be an opportunity for Kim to showcase the economic side of Byongjin.

Economic announcement?

“We do expect some kind of big announcement at the party congress, most likely some kind of economic policy,” says Jenny Town, assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“(Focus on economic development) would be a positive direction but miscalculated, because even if they’ve been hyper-signaling their nuclear capabilities only for domestic propaganda purposes, it will be difficult to make good on economic promises,” she says.
Since the younger Kim took the helm, he has pledged to improve people’s living standards. Limited agricultural and labor reforms have aided economic development and the country has been enjoying modest economic growth and improved conditions, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
However, North Korea still ranks last on the Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of Economic Freedom.

How will sanctions affect North Korea’s economy?

Questions remain over the regime’s ability to grow economically in the face of tightened international sanctions in response to the year’s nuclear developments — even for a hermit nation like North Korea, outside trade is an important part of the equation.
Sanctions make it more unlikely that Kim can succeed in economic development while he has tangible success on the nuclear front, says Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
“He needs both, but if economic development objectives are blocked he may have only his nuclear accomplishments to stand on.”
But a question mark hangs over exactly how effective the tougher sanctions will be.
“The full measure of that impact will depend, in the long run, on how all countries choose to implement the sanctions,” says Town, adding that even with China adding its weight behind the sanctions, Pyongyang does have other trade partners which it can turn to to supplement trade losses.
It depends on how much and how consistently countries implement the new measures.
“If implementation is sporadic, the impact to North Korea could be minimal,” she says.
However, Town’s colleague at 38 North, Joel Wit, says sanctions have been a fact of life for North Korea for years and little has changed in over a decade.
While “new sanctions are stronger… we’re not going to see anything soon, (and) might not see much of anything.”

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