North Korea calls for economic growth, improved lives despite ‘persevering struggle’

North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly pledged to develop the economy and improve people's livelihoods in a rare meeting. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korea's Parliament has pledged to develop the economy and improve people's livelihoods despite the "difficult and complicated problems" faced last year from sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, state media said on Tuesday (Feb 8).

The Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), the country's Parliament, gathered on Feb 6 to 7 to discuss Cabinet work and government budgets and adopt new laws on childcare and the protection of overseas residents, the official KCNA news agency said.

Leader Kim Jong Un did not attend the meeting, which was led by Mr Choe Ryong Hae, chairman of the SPA Standing Committee.

The Parliament rarely meets and usually serves to approve decisions on budget, personnel and legal issues, as well as the tasks of the ruling Workers' Party, whose members mostly form the assembly.

The gathering came as North Korea faces mounting economic woes amid sanctions over its weapons programmes and Covid-19 lockdowns that sharply cut trade with China, its major ally and economic lifeline.

On Monday, the United States called on North Korea to defund its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and prioritise the needs of its own people, as Russia and China blamed sanctions for worsening the humanitarian situation in the hermit Asian state.

In December, Mr Kim lauded some success made in implementing a five-year economic plan he unveiled early last year, but warned of a "great life-and-death struggle" this year in achieving the goals of boosting the economy and people's lives.

Mr Kim Tok Hun, premier of the North's Cabinet overseeing the economy, said at the SPA meeting that he aimed to consolidate the foundations for the five-year plan, with metal and chemical industries being key links, KCNA said.

"Last year, the economic construction field faced more difficult and complicated problems than expected due to the hostile forces' persistent sanctions and the worldwide health crisis," he said.

"We are now faced with the heavy yet responsible task to lay a sure guarantee for implementing the five-year plan and make evident changes in developing the economy and improving the standard of people's living."

He also vowed to bolster efforts to restore trade and ramp up food production to "normalise" food rations for the people.

"The agricultural sector... will increase the production of meat, egg and dairy goods and put efforts into the production of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms and oil-bearing crops so as to greatly contribute to the people's diet," Mr Kim Tok Hun said.

Dr Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea, said it could be meant to centralise trade channels and tighten state control in line with an amendment to trade law endorsed by the SPA last week.

The United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea has said the country's most vulnerable people risk starvation amid deepening isolation during the pandemic.

The economy suffered its biggest contraction in 23 years in 2020 due to sanctions, the pandemic and bad weather.

North Korea has not confirmed any Covid-19 cases, but has closed borders and imposed strict travel bans and other restrictions.

The border shutdown led to a 80 per cent drop in two-way shipments in 2020 with China, which had accounted for some 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade volumes. Both sides resumed trade last month, when a North Korean train arrived in a Chinese border town for the first time since the pandemic.

At the SPA, Finance Minister Ko Jong Bom mapped out this year’s budget, including a 33.3 per cent hike in spending to tackle the pandemic, KCNA said in another dispatch.

It did not specify the scale of the budget, but said 15.9 per cent of the total would be allotted to defence, similar to last year.

"Defensive budget planning appears to continue since last year due to the pandemic," an official at Seoul’s Unification Ministry in charge of cross-border affairs told reporters.

There was no mention of foreign policy or inter-Korean relations, unlike last September when Kim Jong Un hosted the SPA and offered to reopen hotlines with the South while criticising US "hostile policy".

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