North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's move to call a rare congress of the ruling party was reported by the North's Korean Central News Agency. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

North Korean media accounts of Sunday’s second-day session of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea offer only scant hope that Kim Jong Un, in the major annual New Year’s Day speech he’s scheduled to deliver on Wednesday, will lay out big changes in economic policy.

Although the official Korean Central News Agency and other outlets said he used the term “grave” to describe the economic situation, there was little else in Kim’s reported remarks to suggest he was about to take bold policy steps of the sort that could remove his country from the basket-case category.

According to North Korea’s Uriminzokkiri news outlet, Kim, chairman of the ruling party, “comprehensively and anatomically analyzed the problems arising in the overall state-building, including the state management and economic construction in the present time.”

Right there is a strong indication Kim will largely stick with his father’s and grandfather’s policy of emphasizing and perennially trying to fix the state-run industrial, extractive and agricultural sector – which collapsed in the mid-1990s, in the midst of a famine, following the end of communism in the then-Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the consequent end of generous subsidies to Pyongyang from those countries.

The situation has been inescapably grave ever since then, but neither the late Dear Leader Kim Jong Il (died eight years ago) nor his son and heir the Beloved Marshal Kim Jong Un has been up to overturning the failed system they inherited from founder and Great Leader Kim Il Sung (died 1994) – although they have frequently made remarks urging underlings to make major efforts to change things.

Beyond that word “grave” there is nothing in the Urimzokkiri report that jumps out and says Kim may be about to emulate China’s Deng Xiaoping, opening and reforming the economy, encouraging market forces and private initiative and de-emphasizing state-owned enterprises. Rather, Pyongyang released boilerplate such as this:

Kim “put forward in detail the orientation of the struggle for bringing about a decisive turn in the development of the country’s economy and people’s standard of living as required by the Korean revolution and the building of a powerful socialist country and its practical ways.

“He stressed the need to reasonably straighten the country’s economic work system and order and establish a strong discipline and presented the tasks for urgently correcting the grave situation of the major industrial sectors of the national economy. He underscored the importance to take practical measures for further strengthening the independent economy of the country.”

One comment seems open-ended, suggesting there may be some effort to improve agricultural policy: “Referring to the necessity to decisively increase the agricultural production, he put forward the important issues for bringing about a new turn in all sectors of agriculture.” Unfortunately we have heard such rhetoric before and the results up to now haven’t come close to reaching the scale that’s needed.

Kim “called for dynamically waging the campaign for increased production and economization and better quality and taking thorough measures for protecting ecological environment and preventing natural disasters.”

North Korea typically blames natural disasters, such as floods, along with sanctions and other imperialist scheming, for its economic woes.

As has been the case since the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 71 years ago, it appears socialist ideology will continue to take pride of place formally – even though as a practical matter on the ground the rise in the last quarter century of an (officially all-but-ignored) dog-eat-dog private sector, built around markets, has all but rooted out what for several decades was a genuine popular morality of sharing.

Urimzokkuri says that Kim on Sunday “stressed again the issues of intensively struggling against anti-socialism and non-socialism, strengthening the work of the working people’s organizations and tightening the moral discipline throughout society.”

The plenary meeting continues. Come Wednesday, with the big speech, we shall see.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, and of the North Korea-set novel Nuclear Blues.

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