North Korea Directs Companies to Eliminate ‘Import Disease’ and Pursue Self-Reliance

North Korea has instructed state-run factories and organizations to be more self-sufficient and shake off what it calls the “import disease” that has made production during the COVID-19 pandemic nearly impossible, local government officials told RFA.

Since the onset of the pandemic in January 2020, North Korea and China have locked down their border and suspended all trade, leaving government enterprises wanting for raw materials and equipment imported from China.

Sources said that the government wants the factories running again and has tasked executives with finding ways to scrounge up resources to get back to work.

“Until now equipment and materials have been imported from other countries, and the officials who were assigned to lead economic development plans after the eighth party congress have been discussing ways to eliminate the ‘import disease,’ an official in North Pyongan province, in the country’s northeast told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.

North Korea’s eighth party congress, a rare meeting of the 75-year-old Workers’ Party of Korea’s leaders, ran from Jan. 5 to 12. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un admitted during the congress that the country “fell a long way short” of objectives set during the last congress in 2016, and called for more self-reliance, citing the country’s founding Juche ideology.

The term Juche is often used in political writings and speeches as an expression of nationalism, and it is the country’s stated goal for the people to become self-reliant and strong so that true socialism can be achieved.

The North Pyongan official said that eliminating the country’s reliance on imports is now seen as part of each agency and factory’s efforts to “defend socialism.”

“The officials of each agency held meetings for each department to carry out the economic mission. The import disease was defined as an act of ‘sympathizing with hostile forces’ as they maneuver to undermine the foundation of our country’s socialist self-reliance economy, suffocating us through economic sanctions,” the source said, referring to U.S. and UN sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of resources that could be funneled into its nuclear and missile programs.

“The party insisted that the import disease should be eliminated from among the officials, and they should increase localized sourcing of equipment and materials in all fields,” said the source.

Another official, based in the country’s central northern Ryanggang province, told RFA the same day that even once the border with China reopens, reliance on imports will still be discouraged.

“They expect that the imports of equipment and materials from abroad will still be strictly controlled. Factory and company officials are perplexed by this decision, because they say it is impossible to carry out the state’s economic plans with only domestic equipment and materials,” the second source said.

Calendars delayed

Underscoring the country’s dilemma, the cash and resource-strapped central government was late on supplying the public with 2021 calendars, an item usually given for a nominal fee to each citizen to ring in the New Year. No explanation has been given for the delay, but sources suspect that an inability to import paper from China is preventing the government from producing calendars out on time.

“There has never been a new year without a calendar like this year,” a resident from North Hamgyong province in the country’s northeast told RFA on Jan. 15.

“Every year, from the end of November to the end of December, a single-page calendar with 12 months has been distributed to every household. It’s already been 15 days since the beginning of the New Year, and most of the residents are spending January without a calendar,” the third source said.

The source said that 2020 calendars were distributed to each person through government agencies and organizations, factories and government offices in Dec. 2019. They were sold to the public for the low price of about 2,000 to 3,000 won (U.S. $0.25 to 0.37.)

“On the other hand, the government this year did distribute 12-page calendars with landscape images and special photos, printed on high-quality art paper for 10,000 to 30,000 won ($1.25 to 3.75), but these were for major municipal agencies and officials of special-class enterprises,” the third source said, referring to companies with thousands of employees.

“The government is only suppling very few of these calendars to major government agencies and special recipients. They are telling the public to wait a little longer,” the third source said.

A resident of Ryanggang told RFA Jan. 17, “Some say that the closed border with China is preventing the government from importing paper needed to make calendars.”

“Residents are protesting, saying that the government had no trouble printing publications or promotional leaflets for the eighth party congress, so it should be easy for them to put out the New Year’s calendar,” the fourth source said.

The fourth source said that the government’s failure to distribute calendars in a timely manner have exposed serious flaws in its economic strategy.

“We’ve had many difficult times in the past, but this is the first time that we are celebrating the New Year with no calendar,” the fourth source said.

“This may seem like a trivial matter, but just by this example, it is obvious that the authorities’ five-year strategy for ‘self-reliant’ economic development is bound to fail.”

Reported by Myungchul Lee and Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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