North Korea opened the Sixth Session of the 13th Supreme People¡¯s Assembly in
Pyongyang on Wednesday, April 11. Kim Jong Un is notably missing (chair, center),
and his attendance could not be confirmed. Image: Rodong Sinmun
“Economic self-reliance” and “improvements to the lives of the people” were some of the key areas of focus for North Korea during the Sixth Session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly on Wednesday. With the country’s boasts of nuclear weapons ‘completion’ in the rear view mirror, North Korea is now showing signs of a shift in focus towards economic matters.
State broadcaster Korean Central Television (KCTV) detailed on April 12 the main items on the agenda at the rubber stamp parliamentary session. These included an assessment of the successes and shortcomings of the country’s 2017 economic performance and 2018 economic tasks in accordance with their ‘five-year strategy for national economic development.’
The KCTV broadcast included Premier Pak Pong Ju’s report on the five-year strategy, saying, “This year, the whole nation launched an all-out offensive to crush the desperate hostile forces, while we have also laid the groundwork to make a breakthrough in revitalization on the economic front.”
“The fighting goals for the third year of the five-year strategy for national economic development should be attained without fail with a firm hold on the key tasks of strengthening the independence and Juche character of the national economy and improving the standard of people’s living,” the report continued. It also promised to “bring about a remarkable turn in improving the standard of people’s livelihoods through production surges in the fields of light industry, agriculture and fisheries this year.”
Cho Bong Hyun, a senior researcher at the IBK Economic Research Institute, pointed out that the April 11 session “marked the first meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly since North Korea announced the completion of its nuclear program last year.”
“Having asserted this completion, they now appear to be promoting a focus on improving the economy and standards of living in accordance with the ‘Byungjin Line’ plan (simultaneous nuclear and economic development),” Cho said.
“One can deduce through the North’s economic reforms this year intended to improve the lives of its people that they are working extremely hard [towards these goals],” Cho added. “However, it may be difficult to succeed if North Korea is unable to acquire funding in foreign currency under the international community’s sanctions.”
During the session, North Korea announced a 5.1% increase in its national budget this year compared to last, with nearly half – 47.6% – designated to “improving the lives of the people,” and 15.9% towards “national defense.”
Pushing back against the announcement, Oh Gyeong Seop of the Korea Institute for National Unification remarked that “there are almost no differences in the budgets that North Korea officially announces each year.”
“Moreover, it is difficult to assess the real economic situation in North Korea as they only release percentages and no specific monetary amounts in the budget,” Oh said.
“It’s a routine annual exercise with no real special takeaways,” he added. “North Korea inevitably faces challenges in developing their economy simply through an emphasis on ‘strong efforts’ and ‘self-reliance’ as international sanctions continue to be more precisely enforced.”
The Sixth Session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly was held in
Pyongyang on April 11. Image: Rodong Sinmun
While observers believed North Korea may have wished to use the platform of the parliamentary session to signal new information regarding either denuclearization or the country’s diplomatic dealings with the US or South Korea, no such information surfaced in the official materials released by state news outlets.
With the April 27 inter-Korean summit fast approaching and the US-North Korea summit slated for sometime in May, many were hoping for clues during the session as to potentially impactful changes in the North’s official foreign policy.
In another surprise, Kim Jong Un does not appear to have attended the parliamentary session and did not show up in any photos of the event, with state media tight-lipped on the issue. Instead, it highlighted the attendance of other high-ranking officials such as President of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong Nam, Vice Chairman of the Workers’ Party Choe Ryong Hae, and Cabinet Premier Pak Pong Ju.
This marks the third absence for Kim Jong Un out of nine sessions of the Supreme People’s Assembly since coming to power. Kim previously missed the September 2014 and April 2015 sessions.
“Kim Jong Un’s absence is not particularly striking, as he has also missed meetings of the Party Central Committee politburo in the past,” an official from the South Korean Ministry of Unification said. “It was just a typical meeting as with any other year.”