The 4th Plenum: Main Takeaways
The 4th Plenum of the 8th Central Committee of the Korean Worker’s Party convened in Pyongyang for five days, from December 27 to December 31, 2021. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un participated in the meeting in his capacity as Secretary General of the Party and gave at least two major speeches. As in 2020 and 2021, this public appearance at a major event around the beginning of the new year replaced the hitherto customary New Year Address.
Concerning formal aspects, it seems that the North Korean leadership has learned from what they might have come to see as past communication mistakes. Rather than providing the complete texts of Kim Jong Un’s speeches, as was done at the 7th Party Congress in 2016, this year state media reported about them in third person and only in the form of rough summaries. They omitted details on sensitive issues and thus made interpretation by outside observers more difficult. For example, readers of state media were merely informed that the leader “referred in detail to the shortcomings and important lessons revealed in this year’s work and the ways for settling them.” We can assume that more detail might be provided in internal ideological education materials, but until these are leaked, this is all there is.
As far as we know, Kim Jong Un gave two speeches or reports at the 4th Plenum. Under the title “On the Orientation of the Work of the Party and State in 2022,” he summarized in a relatively standardized form the achievements of the past and outlined some priorities for the coming year. His second report was more specific, and focused entirely on rural development and agriculture: “Let us open up a new great era of our style socialist rural development.”
The major takeaways from the two speeches are easily summarized.
- There was no reference to foreign policy; neither to the relationship with the US, nor to the relationship with South Korea. No new initiatives were announced, but also no new threats were issued. No complaints were made about sanctions, military exercises or “hostile policies.”
- The military was mentioned only very briefly. No new weapons systems have been announced, and there have been no threats of nuclear or ICBM tests. This does not mean none of these will take place in 2022. Given the seemingly low position North Korea has on the Biden administration’s priority list, such strategic weapons tests—which have not taken place since 2017—would be among the most obvious choices for Pyongyang to pursue if the leadership decides it needs more attention.
- There were no signs of new market-oriented economic reforms or liberalization. Rather, we find approaches and terminology that date back many years, if not decades. Maintaining his position as announced at the 8th Party Congress in January 2021, the North Korean leader seems intent on dealing with the current situation by strengthening the role of the state, undoing previous reformist experiments, and re-focusing the economy on import substitution and the highest possible degree of self-reliance and autarky. The term socialism/socialist (사회주의) appears 60 times in the related KCNA article, and Kim Jong Un reportedly praised “the might of collectivism” and strict “plan discipline.”
- The most important and central topic of Kim Jong Un’s public appearances during the 4th Plenum was on “solving the food, clothing and housing problem for the people,” in particular, development and agriculture. Despite having promised an “improvement of people’s living conditions” (인민생활향상) ten years ago at the beginning of his rule, the leader has not yet fulfilled that mission. His focus on this issue now could thus be as much a reference to his own past as it is to current conditions and challenges. Earlier attempts from 2012 pointed at a willingness to experiment with elements, such as Chinese-style land reform, smaller work teams, decentralization, and marketization. In his speeches at the 4th Plenum, Kim Jong Un went the opposite direction: farmers are supposed to be ideologically motivated, the state’s economic guidance in agriculture is to be strengthened, and a modernization modeled after the Three Revolutions Movement of the 1970s is supposed to make living in the countryside more attractive and productive. The magic bullet to increase output is going to be science and technology, not a more effective incentive system.
The First Speech: On the Orientation of the Work of the Party and State in 2022
Even in formal terms, the leader’s remarks resembled what could be called typical, traditional and orthodox in North Korean fashion. Seemingly dramatic and dynamic terminology such as “decisive,” “agony,” or “change” is softened and effectively devalued by formulations that imply continuity, statism, and lack of progress: “the strategic importance of the next year’s work… will just be as huge and important as this year’s.” Kim Jong Un characterized the year 2021 as “a year of great victory,” but then went on to say that it “opened up a prelude to… great change.” Most North Koreans are well-trained enough to not think too much about the inherent contradiction of such statements, but outside observers are left wondering: victory, or prelude?
Another recurring characteristic of a classical and conservative approach to state socialism as it could be observed in many countries of the Eastern Bloc is an emphasis on “correct” policies. This is intellectually related to the idea that socialism, unlike capitalism, is a scientific worldview. Kim Jong Un explained that: “only when we correctly understand and judge the present external and internal situation and make a right stride along the correct orientation with accurate fighting policies, can we move to the next stage.” It is no coincidence that the term “science” (과학) appears 28 times in the report. (Emphasis added by author.)
The reporting on the leader’s first speech was very general and shallow. Take, for example, the paragraph on the metallurgical industrial sector. It should “produce iron and steel as scheduled by supplying fuel and raw materials in time and… push ahead with the expansion of capacity and modernization.” This is equivalent to telling an audience of wine makers that wine can be made out of grapes. And it is not the only such instance: “[Kim Jong Un] stressed the need for the fishing industrial sector to… catch more fish.”
The agricultural field was and remains the Party’s “top priority.” The introduction of new scientific methods is supposed to make farming independent of climate changes. Good work is to be rewarded ideologically, for example, by sending “thanks in the name of the Party Central Committee to the exemplary agricultural officials, workers, scientists and technologists…” Progress is to be achieved by further strengthening “plan discipline” and the “unified guidance and control of the state over economic work” (경제사업에 대한 국가의 통일적지도와 통제). In construction, the leader gave priority to residential buildings in Pyongyang and in the countryside, and to making Samjiyon City something like a model for other localities.
The pandemic shines through occasionally in Kim’s report, for example, when he mentions the task for the chemical industry to “boost the production of materials for… the pharmaceutical industry,” or that “that the emergency epidemic prevention work should be made a top priority in the state work,” and when he demands to put “the country’s foundation of epidemic prevention on a scientific foundation and firmly [prepare] the material and technological foundation of the epidemic prevention sector.”
Despite the overall very general and often empty nature of the report as mentioned above, a few details stand out as being at least somewhat noteworthy.
For example, schools were asked to “strengthen the meritocratic educational system” (수재교육체계). That is not necessarily what one would expect from a collectivist society. There are, however, parallels to a traditional Korean approach to education, and to other—long gone—state socialist systems that have been highly competitive in their search for and promotion of talent. In East Germany, for example, despite a few ideologically motivated exceptions, most students could only advance to high school (11th and 12th grades) if they had an almost perfect score in their 10th grade.
Another detail was the leader’s demand to develop the economy “in a balanced and simultaneous way” (균형적으로, 동시적으로), a point he had made already back in 2016 at the 7th Party Congress. Those familiar with related theories will recognize this as the official North Korean answer to a central strategic question of economic development: balanced versus unbalanced growth, i.e., investing a little of the country’s scarce resources into each of the sectors of the economy versus focusing on massive investment in only a few key areas in the hope that the market will then lead to an automatic catching up by the rest.
Considering that in the past, plans have suddenly disappeared from media reporting without further notice, it is also noteworthy that the current five-year plan is still officially on the agenda.
Last but not least, compared to previous reports and speeches, criticism of ideological misconduct was very subdued this time. There is just one short paragraph with a reference to “further positively conducting the struggle against anti-socialist and non-socialist practices in the entire Party and the whole country and society,” and establishing and strengthening law and order. There is an even shorter passage calling on the Party to “wage a major ideological battle against formalism.” Taken out of context, these words might sound dramatic, but they pale in comparison with the long and detailed rant against “abuse of authority, bureaucratism, corruption and decadence” at the 7th Party Congress in 2016. It is noteworthy that Kim Jong Un, who had heavily criticized officials in the past, praised them this time for having shown “improvement in their work style.” Does he really think so, or is he anxious to secure their loyalty?
The Second Speech: “Let us open up a new great era of our style socialist rural development”
Since this speech focused on only one topic, reporting was more detailed. Confirming the existing trend of retreating to old-fashioned state socialist principles and approaches, Kim Jong Un noted the need to enhance the “level of ideological awareness of agricultural workers,” that “the major task of rural development strategy at present is to transform all the agricultural workers into revolutionary agricultural workers,” and that it is “of paramount importance to put priority efforts into transforming the thought of agricultural workers and enhancing their political awareness…” In other words, increases in production are supposed to be achieved through ideological incentives, not via market mechanisms. This stands in contrast to previous policies by Kim Jong Il, and also by Kim Jong Un himself. It is not clear what has prompted such a reversal: lack of success, or reluctance to pay the ideological price for the introduction of de facto capitalist elements such as private ownership and demand/supply-oriented price setting?
Kim Jong Un is not the only politician in the world to make long-term promises. In this case, Kim pledged to “completely solve the food problem of the country,” to be attained gradually over the next ten years. But what often works well in a democracy where the maker of a promise is unlikely to still be in power once the due date arrives, Kim Jong Un might find himself in a position in 2032 to explain why such a lofty goal could not be attained. Does that even matter? Indeed: it would be difficult to count the numerous occasions in which one of the three Kims has made similar announcements in the past. So far, the North Korean population has not held its leaders responsible for what turned out to be failure after failure. Political repression, lack of information, and reference to adverse weather conditions and sanctions have managed to suppress any major protest. But how much longer will this strategy work? The past two decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in the level of education and knowledge among North Koreans about economic issues, and new media have made access to alternative information not easy, but definitely easier.
Kim Jong Un’s direct reference to the so-called Three Revolutions (ideological, technical, and cultural) is another indicator of the deeply conservative, orthodox and anything but innovative policy line currently being applied. It goes back to at least the early 1970s, which suggests some parallels to China’s Cultural Revolution, and has been more recently revived in a major conference in Pyongyang in November 2021. The emphasis in Kim’s speech on turning farmers into devout and ideologically pure revolutionaries stands in sharp contrast to attempts earlier during his tenure, when he allegedly introduced the so-called 6.28 measures in 2012, effectively giving the farmers more individual decision-making power over what to grow and how to market their products.
A relatively new and potentially game-changing idea has been somewhat hidden in the long report: wheat farming. So far, the staple food of North Koreans is rice, at least theoretically. Maize, potatoes and barley are produced too, but in smaller quantities and only on land where rice cannot be grown. The problem with rice is that it needs very specific conditions. Apart from the inefficiencies of the socialist economic system and the lack of key inputs such as fertilizer, weather conditions have been a major problem for rice production. North Korea tends to be very dry in the spring, when rice needs lots of water to grow; and it is very wet in autumn, when rice needs dry weather to ripen. If wheat is introduced not just to supplement rice, but to at least partially substitute it, the yields could become more stable.
There are many “ifs” involved here, including acceptance of this policy by the farmers, the readiness of consumers to adjust their preferences, and the suitability of Korea’s conditions for wheat farming. But in principle, changing the planted crops is a globally applied strategy to deal with dynamic conditions, whether because of climate change or other reasons. In addition, due to potentially larger plot sizes, wheat farming is more suitable for mechanization, which could relieve the chronic shortage of farm labor in North Korea that frequently leads to campaigns of sending the urban population out to the countryside to help farmers during rice transplanting and harvest. In his speech, Kim Jong Un referred to this practice. As a side effect, increasing plot sizes would make larger collectives more efficient, and thereby help undo previous decentralization efforts that have obviously fallen out of grace.
It remains to be seen what exactly Kim Jong Un’s remark on wheat farming means or what the effects of such a policy shift will eventually be, but this is nevertheless an aspect that deserves our attention.
Another noteworthy and easily overlooked detail is Kim’s explicit promise to forgive state loans, which many farms have been unable to service properly. Could this be an indicator of a domestic debt crisis? This would correspond with earlier and—so far—anecdotal reports about cash shortages.
Why This Focus on Rural Development?
A question that analysts will surely discuss intensively in the coming days and weeks is why rural development received such attention and prioritization by the leader at this Plenum. Second-guessing the intentions of Kim Jong Un is not an exact science, but we can consider what factors might be driving this focus.
The prioritization of rural development could, for instance, be like the signs I saw in 2010 at the Chinese side of the Sino-North Korean border, prohibiting “shouting at the other side” and “drug smuggling”: it tells us what is actually going on. Kim Jong Un could have decided to demonstrate more interest in the countryside in reaction to actual or potential discontent in the provinces. This assessment is supported by a certain mismatch: before the tightening of sanctions in 2017 and the pandemic, when the economy was doing much better than it is now, Kim Jong Un had been much more critical and self-critical. But now that the country is under the threat of a severe economic crisis, with trade levels and state budget figures at historic lows, Kim’s remarks at the 4th Plenum, at least as far as they have been reported, are almost devoid of dramatic wording. The tone of his speech could therefore be seen as an indicator of his eagerness to convey a message of optimism to calm the worries of his people, including the middle class and the elite.
A more functional interpretation, however, would be relatively simple: North Korea does not produce enough food; to increase food production, the attractiveness of life in the countryside needs to be improved.
Finally, we should not forget that a focus on rural development is by no means new or unique, especially under the conditions prevalent in North Korea. Related attempts have not even been limited to state socialist systems. Under dictator Park Chung Hee in the early 1970s, and around the time the Three Revolutions Movement was initiated in the North, South Korea had its own rural development initiative called New Village Movement (새마을 운동). Comparisons of that campaign with Kim’s current policy are therefore tempting, but potentially misleading. The background of Park’s initiative was not a looming famine, but the desire to balance rapid urbanization, to spread a spirit of developmentalism, to reduce social conflict by providing a more equal distribution of income across the country, and to prop up domestic construction companies through Keynesian infrastructure projects. Nevertheless, the actual measures taken in rural areas are very similar: ideological indoctrination, improved education, expansion of cultural facilities, transfer of new technologies, improvement of health services, and even supply of cement.
For the US and South Korea, the absence of an open invitation for talks or diplomatic initiatives does not necessarily mean that North Korea is not interested. In fact, if the leader’s focus on rural development is indeed a sign of economic difficulties, he might be more open to related offers than it seems.
Even though a solution of North Korea’s economic problems cannot be expected from the currently promoted orthodox policies, the 4th Plenum confirmed that a more reform-oriented approach is not in sight. The North Korean leadership seems confident to survive nevertheless. This suggests that they expect external support—and Beijing might consider it to be in its interest to lend a hand, in the context of the emerging Cold War 2.0 in East Asia. If that assessment is correct, then North Korea could be able to keep muddling through without having to risk a change of system and too much interaction with the West. But this will only postpone a solution to its fundamental economic development issues, and it remains to be seen how long the North Korean population will be willing to accept that reality.
“Let Us Strive for Our Great State’s Prosperity and Development and Our People’s Wellbeing: Report on 4th Plenary Meeting of 8th CC, WPK,” Korean Central News Agency, January 1, 2022. http://www.kcna.kp/kcna.user.special.getArticlePage.kcmsf;jsessionid=26C2FBA17760194D4B54BEBF9985839F.