North Korea could face severe economic crisis – but Kim Jong-un will likely remain in power

By James Moules


NORTH Korean leader Kim Jong-un opened 2021 with a sombre declaration that his economic plan had been an unmitigated failure.

Speaking at a congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (the ruling party of the North Korean regime), Kim said that the most recent five year plan almost universally failed to reach its targets across most sectors.

His announcement comes after trade with his key partner China plummeted when the North Korean government closed its borders due to the Covid pandemic.

However, Dr Sojin Lim, Co-Director of the International Institute of Korean Studies of the University of Central Lancashire, told Redaction Politics that it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions from Kim’s statement.

She said: “It is premature to conclude whether the country is heading to a similar crisis as in the 1990s or not. It could not be at the similar level, but also it could be even worse.

“One big difference now and then is that there are Donju (masters of money, or individual entrepreneurs) who tend to have sustained North Korean economy since the 1990s.

“Kim Jong-un seems to intervene this informal economy structure now, which he has admitted and has not intervenes officially until recently, and this could be a critical factor whether the North Korean economy can survive or not.”

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea experienced a major economic crisis in the 1990s that culminated in a mass famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

[READ MORE: Escape from North Korea – ‘In Order to Live’ by Yeonmi Park]

North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 – and has since issued threatened nuclear war against the United States on multiple occasions, most notably during the presidency of Donald Trump.

While the situation was deescalated and Trump and Kim signed a commitment to denuclearisation at their summit in Singapore, the North Korean leader ended his country’s freeze on nuclear testing in 2020.

In January 2021, Kim went further to suggest that North Korea expand its nuclear capabilities. He also labelled the US as the country’s “biggest enemy.”

Dr Lim said that Biden will likely take a different approach to North Korea than Trump – but that Kim could return to issuing explicit nuclear threats nonetheless.

“Biden will be very different from Trump. Already, he has begun removing Trump’s legacy in his office,” she said.

“With this in mind, Kim Jong-un can either provoke with nuclear threats or truly cooperate for denuclearisation. However, it does not seem that the latter would be likely based on his observation of what have happened to Hussein in Iraq and Gaddafi in Libya.”

[READ MORE: Biden to pursue ‘traditional diplomacy’ with North Korea – and a different agenda to Trump]

North Korea claims to have no cases of Covid-19, but many observers believe this is unlikely.

Dr Lim added that while the pandemic could threaten the North Korean regime, it is likely that the Kim dynasty will remain in power.

“There have been quite a few times that we thought that the North Korean regime would collapsed, especially whenever previous leaders died,” she said.

“If the Covid-19 situation continues longer, and thus, the country cannot open its borders, maybe we can see something close to the collapse. However, once the vaccines begin to be injected in the country, and the borders become open, it will survive once again like it did in the 1990s.”

North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung died 1994, and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-il.

Similarly, Kim Jong-un succeeded his father following Kim Jong-il’s death in late 2011.


Featured Image: Pixabay

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