The announcement in October 2015 that the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) would hold its first congress in 36 years came as a sensation. The announcement itself was made shortly after the lavishly celebrated 70th anniversary of the Party’s founding. For several months, experts vied with each other in making forecasts and surmises as to why the North Korean leadership had deemed it necessary to revive the tradition of Party congresses, considering that during the reign of the current leader Kim Jong-il’s father even Plenary Sessions of the Central Committee were hardly ever held. Indeed, in 2010 the rule stating that Party Congresses should be held every five years was dropped from the WPK Charter. The more pressing issues appeared to have been solved by Party conferences held in 2010 and 2012. All the more intriguing was the question as to what the “epoch-making events” would bring.
It was clear from the start that the Party Congress was to usher in the “era of Kim Jong-il.” However, some experts (including this writer) hoped that the Congress would provide an occasion for working out a new socio-economic course for North Korea, with a greater emphasis on market mechanisms. The fact of the matter is that the mechanisms are there, but they have not been legalized: at least half of the country’s GDP is generated in the “grey sector.” Some have even predicted that the Congress would mark a turning point in North Korea’s modern history, that it would adopt something similar to Deng Xiaoping’s line for “building our brand of socialism.” True, very few optimists believed that North Korea would consign the word “socialism” to oblivion, as happened to the term “Marxism-Leninism.” There were hopes for “peace initiatives” following the “spring resurgence” of tensions on the Korean Peninsula over regular U.S.–South Korean military exercises. Many had expected major reshuffles within the Party, the retirement of a number of leaders who had started their careers under Kim Il-sung (many of whom are over 90) and the emergence of Kim Jong-il’s generation of leaders.
What took place over four days in May at the April 25 House of Culture in Pyongyang disappointed the optimists. Reality turned out to be far more prosaic. To put it in a nutshell, the Congress reaffirmed the immutability of the system and the fact that they did not intend to reform anything. Or at least admit publicly that such intentions exist. One indirect result was that is offered the possibility to launch a production drive as part of the “70-day battle” in anticipation of the Congress. In effect, the supreme body of the WPK became “a congress of one man,” “the victor” Kim Jong-un. The main, if not the sole, aim of the grandiose event (attended by nearly 5,000 delegates and observers) was to draw a line under the process of the consolidation of Kim Jong-un’s power and to honour him as the nation’s leader “in his own right,” and not just under the rule of succession.
However, continuity was highlighted, though not with regard to the current leader’s father, but to his grandfather Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-un even tries to look like his grandfather. It is no secret that the founder of North Korea is far more popular among the people: under his leadership, there was “order,” food rations were distributed in a timely manner, there was confidence in tomorrow and a clear goal of “building socialism,” which half the world was in engaged in building at the time. By contrast, the rule of Kim Jong-il is remembered as “unsuccessful,” as a period of calamities and famine, rampant bribe-taking, military dominance and a blockade of North Korea by its numerous enemies. It is no coincidence that Kim Jong-un describes the period of the “arduous march” in the darkest of colours. “The revolutionary situation was very difficult and complicated during this period,” said Kim, recalling the “collapse of the international socialist camp” as a result of the actions of “traitors in socialist countries.”
“All manner of problems, difficulties and hardships befell us, bringing hardships that were greater than during wartime,” said Kim, accusing “imperialist forces” of exerting all-round pressure on North Korea.
Thus, the simple recipe of “moving forward towards the past” was proposed. The 7th Congress even reproduced the verbal clichés of 40 years ago. It vowed allegiance to “the struggle to complete the cause of socialism,” reiterated the slogans of “achieving the independence of the popular masses and transforming the whole of society on the basis of Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism” that is so familiar to the older generation. Even the style of delivery was preserved, with new reality being described through turns of phrase traditional for North Korean rhetoric.
“A Strong Korea”
Kim Jong-un’s main achievement was declared to be the fact that he was able achieve nuclear status for the country. The series of “firework displays” – nuclear missile tests since the start of this year – enabled Kim Jong-un to declare these achievements to be “an unprecedented milestone in the nation’s 5,000 year history.” Kim Jong-un reaffirmed the nuclear doctrine formula: “Our republic is a responsible nuclear state that, as we made clear before, will not use nuclear weapons first unless aggressive hostile forces use nuclear weapons to invade on our sovereignty. And it will faithfully fulfil its obligation for non-proliferation and strive for the global denuclearization.” It officially reaffirmed the commitment to simultaneously building up the nuclear potential and the economy as a strategic policy of the Party . So any illusions concerning denuclearization of North Korea were dispelled.
As usual, a readiness was declared to improve relations with countries that respect North Korea (true, there are few such countries, and the United States and other Western countries are unlikely to be included in their number any time soon). The North Korean leader called on South Korea “to build relations of mutual respect and jointly usher in a new phase in the improvement of relations and in unification.” The concept of unification within a confederation sealed at the 6th Congress was reaffirmed. The idea basically implies the “one country, two systems” scheme. However, South Korea is hardly enthusiastic about the prospect of the survival of the North Korean system.
Having said that, North Korea is ready for a military showdown. “But if South Korea opts for war…. We shall put up a fair battle in order to mercilessly destroy the forces opposing unification and complete the historic cause of national reunification that all Koreans have been anxiously awaiting for so long,” said Kim .
Therefore, Seoul promptly rejected the proposals of talks between the militaries of North and South Korea that were voiced at the Congress. It has to be said that the words about the need “to open the road to unification” are intended mainly for internal consumption, as the country’s leadership is unlikely to use force, being well aware of what it would lead to.
A Strategy of Stagnation?
Needless to say, the Congress did not see the announcement of a new political course. Indeed, even the faint hopes for economic reforms to officially get under way, or at least partial recognition of the market elements developing in the country, were dashed.
Even so, the statements made during the Congress suggest that the North Korean authorities are set to continue the search for “a special road” and an optimum model of economic development through cautious experiments with reform while avoiding the use of the word.
During his speech, Kim Jong-un admitted that the country did have economic problems and called for them to be solved by “managing the economy in our own style,” a term recently used to refer to the cautious innovations introduced by the country’s leadership since 2012. As a result, enterprises were granted greater autonomy in their economic activities (“the system of responsible management,” essentially cost-accounting – it looks as if private sector finances, the money of the tonju, or fat cats – is to be tapped into), and family contracts have been partially introduced in agriculture.
At the same time, an attempt was made to bring back state regulation and the planning and distributing system. For the first time in 30-odd years, the 2016–2020 Five-Year Economic Plan that was adopted though the state does not seem to have either the resources or the leverage to influence the activities of business entities in the non-government sector. Will this lead to attempts to tighten the screws and stem the growth of the private sector and market mechanisms? Not likely: the present generation of leaders is not so orthodox as to kill the goose that lays golden eggs. However, attempts to tighten control over the “commanding heights” in the economy cannot be ruled out.
In the socio-economic sphere, North Korea will continue the search for “its own way.” It will definitely not follow the Chinese model, because “bourgeois liberalization and the line for reform and openness” – the recipes China is offering North Korea as part of “exchange of experience” – has come in for direct criticism. At the same time, there is a clear intention to expand the use of “our method of economic management,” i.e. the method that uses market mechanisms as an addition to the planned economy, while the cabinet of ministers remains responsible for economic policy as a whole. While previously business in North Korea was based on the activities of rival bureaucratic clans using their administrative resources, today “concentration of powers in the hands of the government” has been announced. Kim added that economic policy must “strictly adhere” to “the single line under the overall guidance of the cabinet of ministers.” Perhaps the real reason is to be able to put the blame on the cabinet in the event of economic setbacks.
In spite of the sanctions and the deteriorating foreign trade environment, there were calls to continue attempts to increase foreign trade and create conditions for attracting investments into special economic zones. However, no concrete actions to that end have been proposed.
The old guard: rulers or figureheads?
No significant changes were made to the composition of the ruling elite during the Congress. It is not by chance that Kim Jong-un began by paying tribute to and naming the party and state leaders who had died since the last congress. This sent a clear message to the current rulers: if you follow orders, you too will be honoured and respected. The main thing is to honour the Leader and be aware of his grandeur.
The North Korean leader himself was given the resurrected title of Chairman of the WPK, which was abolished in 1966 (Kim Jong-il had been declared the Eternal President of the Republic). Kim Jong-un also became the head of the newly created Executive Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the WPK and the Central Military Commission of the WPK. The top members of the new (old) leadership included the head of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Yong-nam, the Chief of the Main Political Directorate of Armed Forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Hwang Pyong-so, Premier of North Korea Pak Pong-ju, WPK Secretary Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Ri-nam, among others. It is notable that Kim’s “main comrades-in-arms” Hwang Pyong-so and Choe Ryong-hoe found themselves relegated to second and fourth places respectively, yielding their positions in the hierarchy to Kim Yong-nam and Pak Pong-ju (could this be a sign that special attention is being paid to the economy?). Although no members of the Kim Jong-un generation were promoted to leading posts, more than half of the Central Committee of the WPK (129 out of 235 members, or 54.9 per cent) was replaced. This may be seen as one more step towards forming a circle of functionaries loyal to and controlled by the North Korean leader. Some positions and institutions were renamed to consolidate the role of the party apparatus as the underpinning of power, just like it was under the current leader’s grandfather. The WPK now has new-look bodies such as the Political Bureau, the Central Committee and others (in the preceding period almost all the Politbureau members died a natural death, while the key role belonged to the National Defence Commission created by Kim Jong-il).
The Congress put an end to the rule of the military. Kim Jong-un began by bringing the “vertical power structure” back under the Party’s control. The Congress stressed the immutable role of the Party as the foundation of the North Korean political system. The Party members, of course, appreciate that and provide Kim Jong-un’s power base. But the military also got their share of attention. The new leader has chosen the tactic of “letting two bulls pull the cart” and, unlike his father, seeks to maintain a balance between the Party and the military. It may sound odd, but the North Koreans tend to observe formal laws scrupulously and engage in legal window-dressing. The decision made by Congress reviews the move to restore the normal functioning of the national governance institutions (which in reality still play a formal role) and the governance style of Kim Il-sung, who used the corresponding structures.
Needless to say, “a return to the norms of Kim Il-sung” is a simulacrum, because there has never been “an era of prosperity” in the history of North Korea. The myth is designed to create a positive image of the current leadership in the eyes of the populace through association with “the bright past.” In reality, the North Korean population is better off than ever before, although the price for this is huge social differentiation, a lack of stability, widespread corruption and the vulnerability of the individual. In reality, the new era will most probably resemble a reformed socialism in China in spite of the criticism of the Chinese course of “reform and openness” voiced during the Congress. Let us wait to see how the early results are interpreted at the next Congress, if it ever happens.
1.조선로동당 제7차대회에서 한 당중앙위원회 사업총화보고