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Regional News

Tongue-lashings from North Korea’s Kim underscore shift in focus to economy

SEOUL (Reuters) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s strident rebukes of officials during recent trips to industrial sites were aimed at rallying support at home for his economic drive and convincing outsiders about his willingness to denuclearize.

After racing toward his goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States, Kim in April shifted his focus to the economy. In June, Kim held an unprecedented summit with President Donald Trump in Singapore, where he lauded the city-state’s economic progress and “world-class” amenities.

Click to enlarge
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un tours a factory in Sinuiju, North Korea, in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency on July 2, 2018.  REUTERS

This month, the young leader has toured industrial facilities and special economic zones near North Korea’s border with China, often lambasting officials over delayed construction projects or lackluster modernization of production lines, according to state media.

Kim has openly slammed executives on previous economic field trips, unlike his reclusive father. The latest criticisms appear to attempt to spur economic development nationwide —and shift blame to bureaucrats where progress has lagged, experts say.

“Now that economic development is made a main party line, he needs to show results but could have realized things were not so beautiful on the ground,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.

“To the people inside, he’s trying to say it’s not the fault of himself or them but that of the party executives, while encouraging ordinary citizens to work hard.”

With nuclear talks with Washington under way, Kim may also want to dispel suspicion about denuclearization by highlighting his zeal for economic development.

Kim made a broad commitment at the Singapore summit to “work toward denuclearization,” but fell short of details on how or when he would dismantle the nuclear programs.

“While trying to win the people’s heart, Kim would want to show that he’s making an all-out effort on the economy and he really means it, and defuse suspicions about denuclearization,” said Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

This week, Kim blasted “shameless” and “pathetic” executives at a power plant site in the northeastern Hamkyong Province, “speechless” after realizing that only 70 percent of construction was completed since it started 17 years ago, the official KCNA news agency reported.

Earlier this month, Kim berated managers of a textile mill in the border city of Siniiju for blaming the lack of raw materials and money despite their poor work at the planned upgrade of the factory, according to KCNA.

The rebukes appeared part of Kim’s efforts to mimic his popular, affable late grandfather, Kim Il Sung, in creating a bond between the leader and the people, said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North website.

“That some senior officials are being lackadaisical in their officials duties, he made a point of saying they only come out for the official opening events and aren’t being responsible in the daily work,” Madden said.

“This is similar to speeches and remarks that were made by Kim Il Sung who did the same thing.”