What We Learnt from North Korea’s Party Congress
Maria Rosaria Coduti looks back at North Korea’s Party Congress last month and tries to distill what we learnt from it.
The 7th Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Congress in North Korea, convened on May 6, was the first of its kind since 1980, ending with a massive civilian parade on May 9 in Pyongyang. The event was widely billed as serving to cement Kim Jong-un’s leadership position and showcasing the achievements of the regime, not least its advancing status as a nuclear weapons state with its fourth nuclear test conducted at the start of the year. But cutting through the posturing and the rhetoric, three issues in particular arising from the Congress lend themselves to further scrutiny. These include party-military relations, economic reform, and Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing.
A number of organizational changes were announced at the Congress. These included the reinstatement of the WPK Chairmanship, the dissolution of the Secretariat, the creation of an Executive Policy Council, and the appointment of new hand-picked individuals to the Presidium of the Politburo. These are ostensibly aimed at making WKP ruling practices more functional and Kim’s desire to “open a new era of party-centered state management.”
However, such changes also highlight the fact that Kim Jong-un’s succession has not been as linear as that of his father, Kim Jong-il, with question marks over his control of the military. Through personnel changes and the redefinition of senior party leadership positions announced at the Congress, Kim Jong-un has sought to establish his authority by untying it from constituency groups (i.e. military) that had gained an upper hand during his father’s era. This may be interpreted as establishing the primacy of the Party over the military.
Some prominent analysts, such as Professor Rüdiger Frank, have cautioned against oversubscribing to such an interpretation because “every military unit is also a Party cell, and every leading military officer is a Party member.” Nevertheless, the recent changes do indicate the Party having gained the favor of the leader and of vesting more power in the Party in the administration of the country. Moreover, the fact that solid Party rule was key to economic development in China and Vietnam also holds lessons for North Korea.
Indeed, the economy was a prominent issue at the Congress. As such, Kim Jong-un announced a five-year plan to initiate the byungjin policy – that is, pursuing the parallel development of the economy and nuclear program. Also of significance was stressing the importance of the Cabinet as the “headquarters of the economy” and the appointment of the Premier Pak Pong Ju to the Presidium of the Politburo. Pak can now express the Cabinet’s interests in how resources are allocated, empowering this organ in the implementation of the new economic plan.
Until now, the regime has not revealed specific aspects of the plan but in one of his speeches Kim Jong-un clearly identified three crucial issues that have to be addressed: lack of energy, lack of food, and lack of consumer goods. He also highlighted the need to create new joint ventures and special economic zones to drive investment and technology transfers.
Economic development can thus be seen as increasingly constituting a cornerstone for Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy. However, resolving the dependence on imported sources of energy and of generating foreign hard currency to sustain the economy, are all the more acute given that North Korea is under a tough sanctions regime with implementation of the latest UN Security Council sanctions. Beyond the propagandistic tones of putting the North Korea people first, sanctions are depriving North Korea of economic resources necessary to continue to guarantee privileges to both military and political elites; actions are therefore required in order to secure resources for governance.
Relations with China
Third, the absence of a Chinese delegation at the Congress has attracted much attention as a further sign of the erosion of the former “lips and teeth” relationship. There is no doubt that the Chinese leadership is upset by Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and missile tests and that the relationship has been downgraded to a “normal relations between states.” It is also notable that Xi Jinping acceded to the UN Security Council’s adoption of the toughest sanctions yet against Pyongyang in March.
For his part, Kim Jong-un expressed his disappointment toward Beijing during the Congress, especially of its adoption and implementation of sanctions in cooperation with the U.S. By refusing to relinquish North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the young leader not only demonstrated defiance of Beijing’s wishes but also let it be known that he has no intention of putting North Korea on the same path of reform as Deng Xiaoping did in China in the 1970s. And yet, the complexity of the nature and interests that forge Sino-North Korean relations should serve to downplay the import of Beijing’s no-show at the Congress. While relations have undoubtedly cooled, mutual strategic needs and geopolitical considerations – at the foundation of bilateral relations since the partition of the Korean Peninsula – have not fundamentally changed.
In sum, we learnt from the North Korea’s Party Congress that the balance of power in the country’ political system has changed in favor of the Party, with Kim Jong-un seemingly have better consolidated his rule after a period of purges and speculation. Regarding the economy, a new five-year economic plan aimed at improving the living conditions of the population was announced, though stricter sanctions amid the nuclear crisis are also squeezing economic opportunities and raise question marks over the regime’s ability to buy loyalty. Finally, while China-North Korean relations are characterized by mounting frictions, both countries still need each other to realize their strategic goals.
Maria Rosaria Conduti is completing an internship at ISDP. She has previously written on North Korea for the Italian Institute for International Political Studies and North Korean Review Online.