North Korean authorities reportedly gave participants in the Eighth Party Congress watches as presents. This trivial gift – especially compared to the boisterous propaganda surrounding the event – has led to plenty of complaints, with some locals wondering if it is a sign that the national economy has collapsed.

A source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Monday that the province’s representatives to the congress returned to Chongjin on Jan. 15, bringing with them watches engraved with the words: “Eighth Party Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea.”

A source in another province confirmed that watches were provided to the congress participants as presents. “Congress participants received watches engraved with Eighth Party Congress,” a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK. “Spectators, however, returned without receiving any gifts.”

North Korean authorities presented participants in the Sixth Party Congress (1980) and Seventh Party Congress (2016) with Japanese-made color TVs and Chinese-made LED TVs, respectively. During the Seventh Party Congress, the authorities reportedly handed out big boxes stuffed with different kinds of confections and other rare foodstuffs.

Kim Yo Jong at the Eighth Party Congress / Image: Yonhap

Naturally, then, the announcement of the Eighth Party Congress led to considerable expectations in North Korea regarding gifts. In big cities such as Pyongyang and Chongjin, there were reportedly even people who speculated that participants might receive houses.

The lack of big-ticket gifts this year has produced plenty of complaints. According to one of Daily NK’s sources, a growing number of people are even taking to sarcasm, sneering that the authorities must be “sending the gifts this year through the mail because there’s so many to hand out.” 

Some North Koreans are drawing connections to what they fear to be a gloomy future. They worry that the lack of gifts for even core party members who manage the country’s policies means that the country will face “greater difficulties than the Arduous March [the mass famine of the 1990s].”

There is the possibility, however, that key officials in Pyongyang have received expensive gifts. Handing out gifts privately to key officials may be part of Kim Jong Un’s “gift politics,” which aims to prevent any “dangerous elements” from emerging during the massive “generational shift” in the Workers’ Party while encouraging loyalty among key cadres in the party and military.

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