This year seems likely to be tense and dangerously confrontational on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s unusually tough response to US-ROK joint military drills from late September to early November gave us a taste of its hardening posture toward Washington and Seoul; its drones’ recent crossing into the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) was yet another example. Pyongyang’s hardline foreign and inter-Korean policy was confirmed by the results of the Workers’ Party plenum held from December 26 to 31. The South Korean president’s recent comments, including his instructions to retaliate and the possibility of suspending the 2018 inter-Korean military agreement, are further signals that the two Koreas will be locked in an escalation cycle this year.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) media carried only a relatively brief plenum “report” on January 1 that contained excerpts from Kim’s remarks made on four days out of a six-day meeting. We can assume the regime released exactly what it wanted to reveal about the event. An unusually limited readout of economic achievements in 2022 and targets for 2023, including a lukewarm reference to 2022 as “a time which was by no means meaningless and we have clearly advanced,” suggest the North failed to make notable growth last year and is trying to manage expectations about the economy this year. Conversely, the report’s heavy concentration on the security situation and its defense plans reflects the regime’s intent to continue and build on its hard line this year.
The latest year-end plenum is particularly notable for its stronger language on military operations and a turn to a more conservative ideology that likely will have broader implications across all domestic fronts, including the economy.
Though the nuclear issue is what has captured most of the headlines in Western reporting, little was actually new. The plenum document made a point of reemphasizing the nuclear doctrine announced in September—deterrence and use—and reported Kim Jong Un’s call for a massive increase in the production of tactical nuclear weapons. That will have far-reaching consequences if it comes to pass, but perhaps more important in the short term was the sharper edge to all of the military-related formulations in the plenum report.
These built on tough rhetoric Kim Jong Un used last October at the time of an unusual DPRK military activity—tens of missiles of various types launched and large flights of DPRK military aircraft—in response to enhanced US-ROK exercises. These formulations need to be read in the context of Kim’s much more dire characterization at the plenum of the US and South Korea—not just for carrying out a “hostile policy,” but for what were described as serious and sustained military moves that physically threaten the DPRK. The North can always back off when it wants to and knows how to signal when it is giving itself space to do that, but the language of the plenum suggests it has no plans to do that in the near term.
For example, the report noted that 2023 should be “a year of bringing a turnabout in making preparations for war mobilization and enhancing capabilities for actual warfare.” In Kim’s remarks to the Korean People’s Army (KPA) in October, comparable formulations, “war readiness” and “combat mobilization posture,” were more clearly aimed at military preparedness. The formulation in the plenum report could be read in much the same way, but absent a fuller context, it also lends itself to a dangerous internal warning of the need for wider-ranging “mobilization.” This would seem to go beyond mere saber-rattling: In the worst-case interpretation, it puts the entire system—and possibly the population as a whole—on notice that normal activity must give way to “preparations for war mobilization.” For some reason, this formulation was left out of the version of the plenum report circulated by the DPRK Mission in New York, the only part of the long military-related section in the report to be omitted.
The plenum report also noted the meeting had put forward “a concrete course of response to the US and the enemy on shifting to practical action that more reliably and surely consolidates our physical strength from the principle of struggle against the enemies—a power for power [line] and a head-on contest.” Again, elements of that formulation have appeared before—notably in the January 2022 report on a Politburo meeting, which called for “shifting to practical action that more reliably and surely consolidates our physical strength”—but this time, the North went beyond last year’s decision by presenting action-oriented steps. Adding “concrete course” and “power for power [line] and a head-on contest” suggests we will likely witness even more elevated level of response this year than in October.
In part, that may have been made immediately concrete by Kim’s appearance on January 1 at a highly unusual display of “super-large” multiple rockets symbolically being handed over to the army. In his remarks at the ceremony, Kim underlined the contribution of munitions industry workers, in effect demonstrating what was meant by “consolidating our physical strength.”
Conservativism Gains a Foothold
At the same time, holding such a ceremony at the beginning of the new year could have implications for economic policy overall. The leadership knows that an emphasis on defense industry production means denying resources—material resources as well as talent and technology—to the civilian sector. There have been periods of discussion about the defense versus the civilian economy in the past. Now, it would appear there is no room for such discussion.
The tougher position on national defense should be read against even more internal tightening and moving further away from what had for several years been a period of increased engagement with the outside.
The plenary meeting dealt a resolute and serious blow to the outdated idea that still attempts to bargain on the principle of self-reliance, without shaking off dependence on the technology of others. It also acknowledged the need to continue to wage a struggle to completely liquidate the remnants of all kinds of wrong ideas hindering our work under the pretext of the objective environment.
Although the North has been wary of overreliance on external sources for technology, it was long accepted that it was necessary to hold one’s nose and accept advanced technology from the outside world, if only to adapt it to North Korea’s situation. For example, Kim Jong Un, in a letter to a meeting in late 2015, warned against “modernization by introducing the technology of others or modernization by bringing other countries’ equipment as it is” (italics added for emphasis), implying import of foreign technology was acceptable as long as it was adapted to North Korea’s needs. The plenum stance publicly contradicts what was previously seen as acceptable and even advocated at the highest level. Now that policy has apparently been thrown into the realm of “wrong ideas,” attacked for committing the sin of “dependence on the technology of others.”
This could have much wider implications for economic policy overall, specifically Kim Jong Un’s reform-oriented initiatives, as well as the broader internal situation as the current wave of conservative orthodoxy gains ground. The dearth of information about economic policy and goals for 2023 in the plenum report makes it difficult to understand the North’s intentions regarding economic reform. The upcoming Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) session, slated for January 17, where the North will review economic and budgetary issues, could shed more light on the direction of Pyongyang’s economic policy.
Kim’s Worldview and Going Forward
Kim Jong Un, in his plenum report, shared his view of the current global order, noting it has “clearly transitioned to a ‘new Cold War’ system” and reiterating “multipolarization,” similar to his “multipolar world” comment in his policy speech to the SPA in September 2022. His worldview is encapsulated by what appears to be a fundamental shift in North Korea’s foreign policy of more than three decades, resulting in a pivot to China and Russia and possibly even a recalibration of the US’s strategic value for North Korea’s regime security. Kim’s comments on the global order, taken together with his language on the US and South Korea at the recent party plenum, suggest that the North will remain on the same foreign policy path, at least in the near term.
All in all, in 2023, the world will be dealing with a North Korea dominated by conservative, harder-line policies both on the domestic and external fronts.
Sources in this piece were translated from Korean to English by co-author Rachel Minyoung Lee. 본사정치보도반, “위대한 우리 국가의 부강발전과 우리 인민의 복리를 위하여 더욱 힘차게 싸워나가자 조선로동당 중앙위원회 제８기 제６차전원회의 확대회의에 관한 보도,” Rodong Sinmun, January 1, 2023.
“Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Reply Speech at Ceremony of Donating 600mm Super-large Multiple Launch Rocket System,” Rodong Sinmun, January 1, 2023.
For more, see Robert Carlin and Rachel Minyoung Lee, “Understanding Kim Jong Un’s Economic Policymaking: Defense Versus Civilian Spending,” 38 North, September 22, 2021, https://www.38north.org/2021/09/understanding-kim-jong-uns-economic-policymaking-defense-versus-civilian-spending/.
본사정치보도반, “위대한 우리 국가의 부강발전과 우리 인민의 복리를 위하여 더욱 힘차게 싸워나가자 조선로동당 중앙위원회 제８기 제６차전원회의 확대회의에 관한 보도,” Rodong Sinmun, January 1, 2023.
For more, see Rachel Minyoung Lee, “The Real Significance of North Korea’s Recent Military Activities,” 38 North, November 2, 2022, https://www.38north.org/2022/11/the-real-significance-of-north-koreas-recent-military-activities/.