This article aims to analyze the revisions to the Rules of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) made at the Eighth Party Congress by comparing them with the 2016 revisions and draw implications of the Third Plenary Meeting of the WPK’s Eighth Party Congress for North Korea’s foreign and domestic policies.
Ⅱ. The Highlights and Characteristics of the Revised WPK Rules
The key implications of the revisions to the rules of the WPK made at the Eighth Party Congress for North Korea’s foreign and domestic policies can be drawn as follows. First of all, the 8th Party Congress appears to have bolstered institutional discourse by abstracting the official state ideology established and cultivated in the previous regimes. The WPK deleted the detailed ideas and achievements of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in the preface to the revised rules, referring to the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as the “Head of Party.” It is observed that the WPK strengthened its institutional discourse by using a more general term as Kim Jong-un’s official title and designating his predecessors “Great Leaders” to secure the universality and continuity of the North Korean regime and legitimacy of Kim Jong-un’s successor in the coming years.
Secondly, the revised party rules reflect the “Our State First” principle, the nationalist narratives underscored in the Kim Jong-un era. The WPK’s emphasis on the “Our State First” principle shows that North Korea will continuously strive to improve its international standing.
Thirdly, the 8th Party Congress reinstated the Secretariat of the WPK in place of the Executive Policy Bureau and introduced the First Secretary position. The party’s supreme leader was given the title of the WPK’s General Secretary, and the Vice-Chairman in each field was renamed “Head Secretary.” Secretaries and assistant secretaries were also appointed to support Head Secretaries. Moreover, the 8th Party Congress added the new position of the First Secretary of the Party Central Committee who will act as the General Secretary’s deputy in his sudden absence or in emergencies based on Article 26 of the revised rules. It is unclear who has filled the First Secretary position. The position’s creation seems to be Kim Jong-un’s stated desire to introduce a close equivalent to fill his role in the event of an emergency or to install his successor officially.
Fourthly, the revised rules of the WPK strengthened the authority of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s uppermost echelon. Article 28 of the revised rules partially delegates the Standing Committee to preside over the Politburo’s meetings and to discuss the appointment and dismissal of high-ranking figures in the WPK. The WPK’s decision to strengthen the Politburo’s Standing Committee is similar to that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in that the CCP’s Politburo also has the highest decision-making authority in the party-state system.
Fifthly, the revised rules tightened the WPK’s control over the Korean People’s Army (KPA) by enhancing the WPK Central Committee’s power. Article 30 stipulates that the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the WPK’s Central Committee is the party’s highest military body, strengthening the CMC’s decision-making authority in military affairs. This stands in contrast to the 7th Party Congress’ decision to weaken the General Political Bureau (GPB), the internal politburo of the KPA, by deleting the provision that the GPB has the same authority as the CMC in handling military affairs.
Ⅲ. The Implications of the WPK’s Revised Rules and the Third Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Party Congress for North Korea’s Domestic and Foreign Policies
The following summarizes the implications drawn from the revised rules of the WPK and the results of the Third Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Party Congress for North Korea’s domestic and foreign policies. Firstly, it seems that Pyongyang will continue to prioritize economic development based on advanced nuclear and missile capabilities but slightly modify the existing approach by seeking self-reliance to achieve its goal. As it is crucial to create a favorable external environment to focus on economic development, North Korea is likely to endeavor to improve its relations with the U.S. through resumed nuclear talks. On the third day of the Third Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Party Congress, General Secretary Kim Jong-un said that North Korea should simultaneously prepare for dialogue and confrontation, implying that Pyongyang has adopted a long-term plan to improve North Korea-U.S. relations.
Secondly, the WPK removed a “Revolution for National Liberation and People’s Democracy in South Korea” from the preface to its revised rules, which clearly shows that the North decided to drop its long-standing unification plan established by Kim Jong-un’s predecessors. It should be noted that North Korea’s unification plan in the Kim Jong-un era seeks to achieve Korean unification under the “low-level federal government,” which is based on the “one country, two systems” model, not through a revolution.
Thirdly, it is also worth noting growing political similarities between North Korea and China with the enhanced party-centered leadership and authority concentrated on the position of first-in-command. Pyongyang might believe that forging cooperation with Beijing would not undermine North Korea’s regime security as the Chinese political system will likely share an increasing number of similarities with that of North Korea because of the retreat in Chinese political reform in recent years. Therefore, it is forecast that North Korea and China will deepen cooperation if the U.S. doubles down efforts at bringing up human rights issues in Hong Kong to fundamentally undermine the two countries’ political systems build upon socialist principles.
Fourthly, North Korea would possibly reach out to Japan diplomatically. The WPK eliminated the phrase “Japanese militarism and its re-invasion scheme”from the revised party rules, which implies that the North will likely make substantial efforts to improve its relations with Japan. Although North Korea has declared its absence from the Tokyo Olympics, it would seek to improve relations with Japan in the search for a breakthrough in the strained U.S.-North Korea relations.
Ⅳ. Policy Considerations
Several policy implications for the Korean government can be drawn from the trajectory of North Korea’s domestic and foreign policies outlined in changes the WPK made to its rules and the results of the Third Plenary Meeting of the WPK’s Eighth Party Congress. First of all, the Korean government needs to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table by prioritizing the two Korea’s peaceful coexistence over unification, and to reflect such stance in the basic inter-Korean agreement in the future. Secondly, it is advised that the Korean government thoroughly consider its roles and possible options in case the warm-up before the resumed talks between the U.S. and North Korea takes longer than expected. Thirdly, the Korean government also needs to formulate feasible strategies as North Korea and China could initiate multilateral talks on denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula. Last but not least, if North Korea makes concrete efforts to salvage its relations with Japan, it is recommended that the Korean government seek effective ways to induce the improved relationship between North Korea and Japan to have a positive impact on inter-Korean relations by streamlining communication with Japan.
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