North Korea’s leadership recently announced a new regional development policy entitled the “regional development 20×10 policy,” which refers to a plan to build manufacturing facilities in 20 cities and counties every year over the next 10 years. The policy can be seen as an official acknowledgement of the severe disparity in living conditions between Pyongyang, known as the “capital of the revolution,” and the rest of the country, and how this fact is causing considerable discontent among the North Korean people.
It was surprising that such an admission came from the lips of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during his speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly on January 15. Kim also departed from the norm by giving the program a long time frame of 10 years, apparently recognizing that its goals cannot be achieved in a short period of time. What are the Kim regime’s true motives?
A Ploy to Win Over the Public?
First, it is clear that the Kim regime could no longer ignore the continuing deterioration of public opinion in areas outside Pyongyang, commonly referred to as the “provinces.” In Pyongyang, the regime has been able to score points with the public since 2021 with housing projects in Songsin, Songhwa, and Hwasong districts and a terraced housing project on the banks of the Potong River. However, the provinces have had to foot the bill for these construction projects in Pyongyang, which has left many people outside the capital feeling financially exploited.
Moreover, provincial industries and markets have been devastated by the closure of the national border during the pandemic, and high hopes for foreign direct investment were dashed by North Korea’s determination to make a stronger nuclear arsenal an official part of government policy. Dissatisfaction with the regime is growing, and many see a bleak future.
Against that backdrop, Kim needed a ploy to win back the hearts of the people. The problem is that his scheme appears to be little more than another slogan for stabilizing the regime by once again blaming government officials. For example, in August last year, Kim publicly reprimanded Prime Minister Kim Tok Hun for “severely disrupting discipline” while on an on-the-spot inspection in North Pyongan Province. Later, through the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, Kim Jong Un repeatedly called officials incompetent and accused them of hindering the development of revolutionary projects. In this way, Kim has shown his willingness to place blame for North Korea’s economic woes on the prime minister and other officials.
Second, Kim seems to have adopted the strategy of once again exploiting the North Korean people’s fond memories of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. North Koreans remember the elder Kim as a leader who worked tirelessly to improve the provinces. According to North Korean propaganda, Kim Il Sung advocated the equal development of counties during a meeting of economic bureaucrats and provincial party committees in Changsong County, North Pyongan Province, in 1962. In effect, Kim Jong Un has officially pledged to continue the policy of regional development that his grandfather never completed. This amounts to an attempt to use “legacy politics” to further consolidate his position.
Kim has also resorted to a bit of grandstanding by holding meetings at Mt. Myohyang, a site symbolic of his grandfather. Kim Il Sung often summoned economic officials to his Myohyang villa to pressure them to find ways to save the economy from deepening crises. As a result, North Koreans tend to associate the mountain with Kim Il Sung. This may have been Kim’s goal, as he sought to demonstrate that he could be as hardworking as his grandfather.
Since taking power, Kim Jong Un has spent most of his leisure time in Chagang Province, where underground bunkers are always within reach, and in Wonsan, Kangwon Province, which is widely known as his home. But 10 years into his reign, Kim is rumored to have finished rebuilding and modernizing his villa and other guesthouses on Mt. Myohyang. Presumably, he took his close advisers to the villa after the renovations were completed.
Third, Kim has tried to cultivate an image of an easy-going and honest leader. The North Korean leader has complained that people in the provinces do not receive the basic necessities of life, and he has even allowed these complaints to be reported in full. He apparently wanted to show the North Korean public that he was aware of their situation while projecting the image of a leader who has been working on these issues for the past decade.
In particular, Kim set up a body (the Non-Permanent Central Committee for Promoting Regional Development 20×10 Policy) to take care of the provinces under the Organization and Guidance Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea. He also placed his most trusted apparatchik, Jo Yong Won, secretary of organizational affairs of the Party’s Central Committee, in charge of the new body, emphasizing that it is not a mere formality but is intended to produce results. In other words, Kim is making it clear that he intends regional development to be his signature achievement for the next decade.
Kim seems to despise the stigma of being the leader of a poor country. As soon as he took power, he focused on building the Masikryong ski resort in Kangwon Province, and he has also sent soldiers and young people to build up mountainous and rural areas. Following a housing project in rural towns such as Samjiyon in Yanggang Province, Kim has emphasized that other areas must follow suit by building more houses for the rural population. Notably, nine months after the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, North Korea enacted the City and County Development Act, providing institutional support for provincial development.
While Kim’s “regional development policy 20×10” appears to be an extension of previous policies, the question of whether it will succeed is another matter entirely. One obvious shortcoming of the policy is that it is based on self-sufficiency. The amount of aid from the central government should become clear in the first half of the year, but Kim may be reluctant to disburse money from funds under his direct control.
Another variable is the various kinds of “non-tax burdens” that may be foisted upon the North Korean populace during this process. Such measures are currently being prepared right now by the relevant agencies, and the authorities are expected to demand money or goods from each region, either at a fixed rate or at a rate tailored to local circumstances. The likely result is an absurd situation in which a policy designed to win the hearts of the people is implemented by picking their pockets. From Kim’s point of view, the potential for greater volatility in public sentiment is another worrying consideration.
Yet another thorny issue is the possibility that Kim will lose the support of loyal elements in North Korea. The elites concentrated in Pyongyang have enjoyed considerable luxury thanks to the sacrifices of those in the provinces. If North Korea begins to invest its limited resources in the provinces, the elites could quickly become less loyal to the regime. They may begin to feel that they are being shortchanged by the regime’s policies. Ultimately, Kim’s bold regional development gambit is likely to be a crucible for his leadership.