North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party will discuss a “crucial” matter at a meeting Wednesday that comes as the country battles catastrophic flooding that’s dealt a blow to its staggering economy and tries to head off a coronavirus crisis.
The upcoming Central Committee meeting is set “to discuss and decide on an issue of crucial significance in developing the Korean revolution and increasing the fighting efficiency of the Party,” the official Korean Central News Agency said in a Tuesday report, without providing further details.
It will be the first time the Central Committee has met since a four-day marathon session in late December, when leader Kim Jong Un called for a “frontal breakthrough” to build up the economy and state security. He also warned U.S. President Donald Trump that North Korea was no longer no longer bound by his pledge to halt major missile tests.
The new meeting will likely address the critical condition of North Korea’s economy, said Cha Du-hyeogn, who served as a security adviser for former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. “Kim is also likely to focus on Pyongyang’s public health and health control measures, as the country struggles to cope with COVID-19 and flood damages.”
At a party meeting last week, Kim sacked the premier he appointed a little more than a year ago, removed the southern border city of Kaesong from virus lockdown and said he would not accept foreign food aid because of the risk posed by COVID-19.
North Korea has boasted that it doesn’t have any confirmed cases of COVID-19, a claim doubted by U.S. and Japanese officials. The pandemic brings large risk to the impoverished state, whose antiquated medical systems could be overwhelmed by a large outbreak.
North Korea has been hit by flooding since earlier this month, diminishing the harvest and threatening to wipe out farmland. The flooding has also impacted its Yongbyon nuclear facility, with waters reaching pump houses for mothballed reactors, the 38 North website said based on an analysis of satellite imagery.
Agricultural production is a key element of the North Korean economy, putting strain on Kim as he battles global sanctions put in place to punish the country for its nuclear and ballistic missile testing. The United Nations World Food Program, which has operations in North Korea, has said about 40 percent of the population is undernourished, adding that “food insecurity and malnutrition are widespread.”
The North Korean premier serves as a steward of economic policy, and Kim’s recent decision to oust Kim Jae Ryong from the post could help deflect blame for any hardships instigated by a poor harvest.
Adding to the North Korean leader’s economic woes is his decision to shut borders in January due to the coronavirus, which slammed the brakes on the little legal trade the state has. This year, it could send the economy into its biggest contraction since 1997, according to Fitch Solutions.
A weaker economy could decrease Kim’s leverage in nuclear negotiations that started with Trump in 2018, making it more difficult for him to achieve the sanctions relief he wanted in exchange for scaling back his nuclear weapons program. For now with the U.S, in its presidential election season, Kim may be playing a waiting game, churning out fissile material and missiles that makes his regime more of a threat for whoever wins the race.
The announcement of another meeting comes on the same day the U.S. and South Korea began a set of joint military drills, scaled down due to the virus. North Korea so far hasn’t unleashed its typical torrent of rhetoric denouncing joint drills as a prelude to nuclear war.
“North Korea’s reticence on the drills thus far tracks with a drop in North Korea’s commentary and statements on foreign policy writ large since late last year, and the main reason seems to be that North Korea needs to focus on domestic issues for now,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former U.S. government analyst specializing in North Korea.