12 April 2006

Priorities Outlined at the SPA Session

While North Korea's Supreme people’s Assembly (SPA) sessions are usually somewhat dull and predictable, there are some interesting points from this year's opening (Apr. 11, 2006). North Korea has laid out several priorities for the coming year, as well as the current and next five year plan.

"The main task to be tackled in the economic work this year [is] to decisively increase the agriculture production for satisfactorily solving the food problem of the people..."

The various speakers placed emphasis on agriculture several times, both in hailing the increase in agricultural production in 2005 (which, not coincidentally, contributed to Pyongyang deciding to change its relationship with international food donors) and in calling for another increase in 2006. According to the reports, North Korea spent 32.5 percent more on agriculture in 2005 than in 2004, and will spend 12.2 percent more in 2006 than in 2005 (though no base number, nor percent of overall government expenditures, was given for agriculture. The only semi-concrete number given for expenditures was that the military in 2005 and in 2006 gets 15.9 percent of total budgetary expenditures). When discussed, agriculture takes first billing, is to be treated on a "preferential basis" and even gets major billing in discussion on scientific advancement, with calls for bio-engineering and new double-cropping methods. There is also a plan for developing new fertilizer plants using coal gasification as the feedstock.

The second priority is in mineral and resource extraction, including coal and metals. Coal, metal industries and rail transport as a whole will see a 9.6 percent increase in allocated expenditures over 2005. Pyongyang noted a 10 percent gain in coal output in 2005, and plans to "radically bolster up [sic] coal and metal production" in 2006. In the field of science and technology relating to resources, Pyongyang highlights the "latest technology developed and introduced into the prospecting of underground resources" and urges "big efforts" to "industrialize the method of producing iron with locally available raw materials, build a large-scale fertilizer industry based on coal gasification, develop the technology for oil exploration and processing to pave a wide avenue for developing the chemical industry and mine and process on the basis of up-to-date technology such underground resources abundant in the country as lead, zinc, magnesite, graphite, silica and building stone." This is all about exports and heavy industry.

A third priority is in energy. The presenters cite an 11 percent increase in energy production in 2005, and urges the country to speed up "in a big way" domestic fuel and power sources, modernize existing power stations, research renewable energies like wind and bio-energy, expand he use of energy-efficient devices and better manage the nation's energy. In addition, there is the previously mentioned planned development of oil exploration and exploitation technologies.

A fourth priority is in advanced technology, particularly in the IT field. In fact, while the previous three are mentioned prominently throughout the various SPA presentations, the overall "development of science and technology" is listed as one of the three agenda items for the SPA session, after the review and plans for the Cabinet and the review and plans for the budget. While science and technology only see a 3.1 percent jump in budget allocation in 2006, there are plenty of ambitious goals. The speakers "stressed the need to intensify the scientific and technical revolutions as required by principles of the IT age in the new century." Science and technology is supposed to solve the agricultural issue, the natural resource issue and the energy issue. It is also supposed to lay the backbone for a nationwide information network that, coupled with focused education, will turn North Korea into "a power in software development." There are also proposals to create high-tech "hub" cities, where scientists can concentrate and train, conduct research and develop new technologies in intellectual communities under state sponsorship.

While these are the core priorities, there are other interesting bits to note.

First and foremost is he repeated emphasis on the need to expand exports, find new export markets, integrate economically with "overseas Koreans" and others and create various JVs to increase he flow of technology into North Korea and to adapt to the "the changed circumstances and realistic demand." This need for international economic cooperation and trade is repeated several times, and fits with the economic experimentation Kim Jong Il has mandated with the loss of North Korea's former economic sponsors.

On the social front (which will see a three percent increase in expenditures over 2005), there is attention paid to increasing food supplies (perhaps the top priority), the mention of a "new social insurance payment system by enterprises" (unclear exactly what it is, but apparently a nice way of saying heavier taxes on businesses), a "popular policy of health care," and "improving services for the people and bolstering land upbuilding and city management as the householder responsible for the people's living," an apparent reference to a new housing policy, and perhaps the completion and upgrade of half-completed housing projects that dot the countryside all around Pyongyang.

In general, the new plans call for a long-term building up of North Korean infrastructure, technology and social services through the use of foreign assistance and interaction. It is simply a very generalized roadmap to fulfill the economic experimentation that the nuclear crisis was supposed to pave the way for. The question, given North Korea's snail-like ability to alter its plans and course, is whether Pyongyang intends to try this out in spite of the unresolved nuclear crisis, or if Pyongyang is signaling that it will resolve the nuclear issue so as to get on with its new economic strengthening. And given the current opinions in Washington, it would seem that North Korea has but a few weeks or a few months at best to make that decision.

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