By Maria Rosaria Coduti
Intern at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP)
North Korea seems to be one of the main actors on the political stage of the Northeast Asian region in 2016. In reality, Pyongyang has strongly signaled its presence to the outside world since last summer. After a “hot” August with increased military tensions on the Korean peninsula, in October the regime not only started to request the signing of a peace treaty with the U.S., but also announced that in May the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) will be convened. If the 4th nuclear test and the missile test of January and February 2016 are added to the picture, it is possible to think of all these events as constituting a specific strategy of the North Korean regime. In this article, the focus will be on WPK’s Congress that is going to start on May 6th, on its main purposes and contents.
The Congress represents the highest level political guidance body in North Korea, according to the Party’s rule, and it misses from the political life of the country since 1980. All past congresses have been convened by Kim Il Sung and have been focused on ideological and succession issues. Economic issues have not been the primary concerns. However, the historical and political conditions of North Korea at that time were completely different than those of today. Therefore, it is necessary to consider the changes occurred in both the internal and foreign policy of the country to predict what it can be expected from the 7th Party’s Congress. The nuclear development is an example of those changes.
During the 3rd Party’s Congress in 1956, the WPK statutes was amended declaring Marx-Leninism as the guideline for all party activities in order to fulfill the final goal of building a communist society. However, during the 5th Congress in 1950, Kim Il Sung announced the Juche as the Party’s guiding ideology. This change was strengthened during the 6th Congress, when the Juche was elevated to the “monolithic” ideology of the WPK and the ultimate goal of the Party was set as realizing its principles in every aspect of society to build and independent country. Moreover, the last congress was significant for the formalization of the position of Kim Jong Il as the successor of the “Great Leader”.
There has been no congress during the Kim Jong Il era. Starting since 1990s, North Korea has experienced a long period of crisis due to natural disasters, a severe famine, the collapse of the Public Distribution System, the decreasing of the aids from Russia in the post Cold War era, two nuclear crises and the UNSC economic sanctions. In response to this national crisis Kim Jong Il instituted the “military-first politics”, or Songun, under which the WPK lost its primacy in the political system of the country.
Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2012, some changes have occurred in the country in the economic, political and social domains. These changes have aimed at reviving the country’s declining economy and to deal with the international community policies of isolation and sanctioning against the country because of its unwillingness to denuclearize. Despite these challenges, the situation in North Korea looks relatively stable. The calling of the Congress after a hiatus of 36 years also suggests that Kim Jong Un feels confident enough to hold such a significant event now, that he can control every detail of the event. He has mobilized the entire country to get ready for the rare gathering in a 70-days campaign that has just ended on May 2.
Professor Reudiger Frank noted, “a party congress is always a major event in a socialist country. It is an occasion when information is disseminated, when personnel changes take place, when stock of past achievements is taken, and when new strategies are announced”. There have been some historical examples of how the strategic changes announced during a party congress have reformed a country system beyond recognition: in China in 1982, in both Vietnam and Soviet Union in 1986. However, the North Korean case is different. The Congress will not bring about revolutionary changes that could threat the political survival of Kim Jong Un’s regime. On the contrary, the event will highlight the figure of the leader as the suryong of the country and will serve the political purpose of strengthen the dominance of the regime and its grasp on the population. It will declare the achievements and changes implemented during his government and also announce future plans. The preparation process that has been going on in North Korea has been a means to increase the production and rally the population’s loyalty for the regime. On the other hand, the Congress will serve to show to the outside world the solid status of the Kim Jong Un leadership, stressing the fact that North Korea is now a full nuclear state that deserve to be recognized as that.
The majority of international observers of North Korea are predicting that the Congress will be significant especially for the economic reforms that the regime could announce. According to them, given that the byungjin policy calls for the parallel development of the economy and the nuclear sector, and that the later has been improved, it is time to move on to economic reforms. In this article it is argued that the introduction new economic policies will be directed to serve a bigger goal, to strengthen the political power of the leader and to show how his “dual approach of love for the people and fearpolitik” has been effective.
During the 7th WPK’s Congress, it can be expected that Kim Jong Un will actually implement changes. First, it is possible to affirm that he is already trying to differentiate his style of leadership from that of Kim Jong Il. Indeed, he is trying to emulate the governmental style of his grandfather Kim Il Sung to build up his own charisma. In fact,The first five years of his rule have been used by Kim Jong Un for solidifying his political charisma. The Party’s Congress will be the right event to announce major organizational changes and “open a new era of party-centered state management”, as it was during Kim Il Sung regime. According to Park Hyeong Jung, Kim Jong Un will either directly oversee all political decisions and power politics matters or give more autonomy to relevant party-state organs regarding daily and technical affairs. He will also clarify the distribution of duties between the party and the cabinet. This aim is in line with the will of the leader to promote North Korea as a “normal state” in a peace-time and with his efforts to reduce the power of the military. According to a North Korean sources reported by DailyNK, Kim Jong Un will strengthen the WPK’s Central Commission and Central Military Commission in order to downgrade the National Defense Commission, and he could be designated General Secretary of the Party and President. However, Kim Jong Un has been more concerned about securing actual power and it is not sure that he will feel the need for assuming such important symbolic positions. Some observers expect that Kim Jong Un will establish a new Monolithic Ideological System to foster the foundation of his leadership. This would also represent another common-trait with Kim Il Sung. Finally, Kim Jong Un will replace a great number of mid- and low-ranking Party officials. Thus, the Congress will be useful to accelerate the generational shift in the political power that has been already implemented since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father. Since the second succession, executions and purges have been numerous in North Korea. This means that Kim Jong Un has been eager to create his own loyalty base, not trusting senior officials concerned to protect their privileges and power acquired during past leaderships. This issue is directly linked to the struggle against corruption that Kim Jong Un has introduced in the domestic political sphere especially since 2016. Indeed last February, he presided over a meeting on corruption and abuse of power in North Korea, the first of such kind in the country’s history. The Korean Central News Agency said in a report that the central points of the gathering were the strengthening of the party and the critique of the "practices of seeking privileges, misuse of authority, abuse of power and bureaucratism”. It is possible that Kim Jong Un will further stress the importance of this policy during the Congress.
During the last months, there have been expectations that the regime will would open up its economy through the implementation of new economic reforms. These expectations have been increased by the great emphasis of Kim Jong Un on building a “strong economy”, as he said in his New Year’s address. Moreover, the tough UNSC sanctions imposed on North Korea last March call for new domestic measures in order to secure resources for governance. However, it is important to notice that some changes in the economic sector have already occurred in the country since 2012, and the regime has been tolerating new economic realities, like the increasing of market activities, during the last few years. These policies have contributed to registering more positive signs in North Korea’s economy. Furthermore, in so doing Kim Jong Un has been able to show to the population that he is really concerned about “people’s livelihoods”; however, especially the regime’s cadres and organs have benefited from this situation. For these reasons it can be expected that Pyongyang will announce the expansion of its economic management plans, i.e. the “June 28 measures” adopted in 2012, which pertains to agricultural policies, and the “May 30 measures” in 2014, “allowing for the allocation of resources based on each individual’s contributions, or granting factories, companies, and shops autonomy in management” (Kim Ga Young). The reforms will include provisions authorizing individuals to directly manage factories, by providing them with more freedom to make money.
The regime’s acceptance of this new economic reality is clear and will give the market some ideological connotation. Moreover, to continue to stress the role of the state in the economy and to justify some differences, Kim Jong Un will also restate the importance of socialist principles in economic policy. According the opinion of some experts, an official tax system will be introduced in the country to regulate market fees and other areas. Professor Lim Eul Chul has said to DailyNK that “especially with the development of the markets, it may see the inevitable need for bank deposits and loans, and this could mean financial policy reform”.
Regarding the realm of foreign policy, a quite certain expectation is that Kim Jong Un will present North Korea to the external word as a full nuclear power state, and he will declare his intention to redefine the internal and foreign policy of the country according to that reality. The recent 4th nuclear test and various missile tests will be announced as some of the biggest achievements of the Kim Jong Un regime. The Party’s Congress will represent a useful platform for the regime to promote its nuclear and missile programs and to intensify its argument to be recognized as a nuclear state by the international community, especially by the U.S. The young leader will continue to stress the request of a peace treaty, to formally end the state of war on the Korean peninsula in place since the signing of the Armistice in 1953, but from a stronger position than in the past assured by its nuclear status. The North will also ask the South Korean government to provide guarantees for the security of the regime and to stop the negative propaganda against the leader Kim Jong Un. Moreover, it is worth noting that thanks to the possession of nuclear deterrence, North Korea could exploit the big political event to declare a softer foreign policy toward Seoul, and could even put forth a new proposal to move toward creating a federation between the two Koreas.
The ruling party Congress will be promoted as a great success by the North Korean leadership after it will be hold. However, experts are skeptical of the power of Kim Jong Un to secure loyalty from younger generations of officials and from the public. The idea that the primary preoccupation of the regime is the nuclear development instead of the improvement of people wellbeing is also widespread in North Korea. Nobody is certain that the Congress will bring real benefits to the country, and a lot of people are worried about the massive amount of money necessary to organize the event. Moreover, North Korean society is changed from that of the Kim Il Sung era. The growing middle class, the people more informed and demanding, expect that Kim Jong Un respect his promise to make the lives of his citizens better; otherwise, the relative stability of the country will be threatened.
The possibility for the leader to fulfill his goals depends on how the nuclear issue will be resolved. This issue is crucial both for the domestic and foreign policy, it is a matter of survival for the rule of the Kim family. Until now, the solutions constituted by either the economic sanctions or multilateral negotiations have failed. Furthermore, the normalization of the relations with the U.S., and the international community in general, also depends on the resolution of the nuclear problem. If the regime is able to negotiate some concessions on its nuclear program in exchange for some security assurances it could start a long term process of development and normalization of relations with the external world from which the North Korean population will certainly benefit.
Ms. Maria Rosaria Coduti began interning at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP) in March 2016. She holds an MA, with honors, from the School of Political Science at the University of Bologna, Italy. Her specialization is on East Asian International Relations, with a focus on two Koreas and China politics. Her research interests focus on domestic and foreign policy of two Koreas and China, inter-Korean relations, nuclear and security issue in Northeast Asia, and cognitive foreign policy analysis and role theory. At ISDP, Maria Rosaria is affiliated with the Korean Peninsula Program and China Initiative.
***The ideas herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of North Korean Review or Yonsei University.
Julian Ryall interviews Professor Reudiger Frank. “Is North Korea's party congress a hint of ‘perestroika?’” DW, 2015-11-18
 Kim Ga Young. “Public reaction to Party Congress as important as the event itself” DailyNK, 2016-04-21
 Lee Min Reung. “7th Party congress points to new horizons for North Korea” DailyNK, 2015-12-04
 Park Hyeong-Jung. “What to Expect from the 7th Korean Workers’ Party Congress” KINU. Online Series, 2015-11-20
 Kim 2016
 Michael Kaplan. “North Korea Combating Corruption? Kim Jong Un Oversees Rare High-Level Meeting On Abuse Of Power” International Business times, 2016-04-02
 Kim 2016
 Professor Lim Eul Chul, Institute for Far Easter Studies, in Kim Ga Young (see 2)
 Kim 2016