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The Peninsula

A Watcher’s Guide to the Seventh DPRK Party Congress

Published May 3, 2016
Author: Mark Tokola
Category: North Korea

By Mark Tokola

The upcoming May 6th Congress of the Worker’s Party of (North) Korea is already a noteworthy event simply because it is happening at all.  There has not been a Party Congress since 1980, although in recent decades ‘Party Conferences’ have provided alternative platforms for announcing major decisions, such as the April 2012 Party Conference which elected Kim Jong-un as First Secretary of the Workers’ Party, cementing his position as Kim Jong-il’s successor.  Holding a Party Congress in 2016 is a throwback to the era of Kim Il-Sung, which his grandson, Kim Jong-un, appears to be emulating.  What might we expect from the May 6th Congress?

The history of past Party Congresses shows a pattern of using them to carry out Party reorganizations, to name new officials, to announce five and seven-year economic plans, and for the North Korean leader to make major political and ideological pronouncements.  The 1st and 2nd Party Congresses were held in the late 1940’s for the purpose of establishing the Party and letting Kim Il-sung take charge of it.  The 3rd and 4th Party Congresses in 1956 and 1961 were the first held after the establishment of the DPRK and announced Kim Il-sung’s five-year economic plan and following seven-year plan.  They also elaborated the Party structure and edged the DPRK towards a more independent international stance, away from the idea of a rapid unification of the Korean peninsula.  The 5th and 6th Party Congresses in 1970 and 1980 were used by Kim Il-sung to lay out his “three revolutions” (ideological, technological, and cultural) and then to replace Marxism-Leninism as the state ideology with ‘Juche’ (self-reliance).  The 6th Party Congress also named Kim Jong-il as Kim Il-sung’s successor and appointed new members to the Secretariat, signaling a shift to a new generation of leadership more of Kim Jong-il’s age at the time.

Given Kim Jong-un’s penchant for trying to appear as similar as possible to Kim Il-sung, and taking in account the position and needs of today’s DPRK, a reasonable prediction would be that the 7th Party Congress will have similarities to those of Kim Il-sung, with some thematic updates.  We might watch for the following:

1)      An Amendment of the Workers’ Party Rules.  Kim Jong-un has moved in the direction of replacing the personal, informal decision-making of his father, Kim Jong-il, with a greater veneer of institutional processes.  This might serve to offset his youth and inexperience with an appearance of his being in charge of a weightier ‘system,’ increasing his legitimacy.  Tinkering with the Party rules at the Congress, perhaps by giving the Party more apparent control of the military, might be another step in this direction.

2)      The Appointment of Officials.  Previous Party Congresses have appointed new members to the Central Committee, Politburo, Secretariat, Military Commission and other organs.  Kim Jong-un probably will be given additional titles to add to his list of attributes.  Foreign Pyongyang watchers will be interested in who is up and who is down (or out), but more generally, watch for a shift to a younger generation of leadership loyal to Kim Jong-un in the same way that the 6th Party Congress marked a generational shift 36 years ago — which essentially is the definition of a generation.

3)      Economic Program.  North Korea has abandoned the practice of an “x”-year, overall economic plan in favor of specific initiatives such as the 1998-2003 plan to increase “scientific and technical development,” but it would not seem like a Party Congress without the announcement of economic ambitions.  Watch for Kim Jong-un to announce economic reforms (with North Korean characteristics) to improve the lives of his people.

4)      Nuclear Statehood.  The spate of nuclear and missile tests over the past months likely will lead to an announcement at the Party Congress that North Korea is now, and forever will be, a nuclear power.  This will be cast as a personal triumph for Kim Jong-un, giving him an accomplishment to put him in the same league as Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.  It is even possible that the Party Congress will further enshrine nuclear statehood in some ‘constitutional’ way beyond the DPRK’s 2012 announcement of nuclear state status, as a signal to other nations that the possession of nuclear weapons has become non-negotiable, while perhaps leaving the door open to future arms limitation agreements.

5)      The Speech.  Kim Jong-un does not share the reluctance of his father, Kim Jong-il to appear in public and to speechify.  This is yet another way for him to look like a new Kim Il-sung, who used to speak in public, and at length.  It will be worth going through Kim Jong-un’s speech, or speeches, to look at how much relative weight he gives the four main themes of current North Korean ideology:  (A) Victimhood/Heroism.  North Korea is besieged by enemies who seek to destroy it, but it is heroically resisting, supported by the sacrifice of its people; (B) Loyalty to the Regime.  Unwavering, unquestioning loyalty is required to resist enemies and achieve prosperity.  Enemies of the state must be rooted out and eliminated; (C) Militarism.  North Korea’s external foes are put on notice that their threats to North Korea will be unhesitatingly met with overwhelming military force; and (D) Economic Reform and Development.  North Korea does not have to choose between a nuclear weapons program and economic development.  Thanks to brilliant leadership, and the people’s sacrifice, both can be achieved, although it may take a little while longer to achieve prosperity because of the machinations of North Korea’s foes.

The purpose of the 7th Party Congress will be to try to strengthen Kim Jong-un’s grip on power.  While Americans, South Koreans, and the international community will be looking for warnings of further confrontation or a hint of a diplomatic opening, it will be worth keeping in mind that the Party Congress is predominantly for North Korean domestic consumption, to boost Kim Jong-un’s power base in Pyongyang and to discourage any North Korean who is contemplating ways to undermine him. This will be his big show.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Jen Morgan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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