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The Peninsula

The 2021 North Korea Party Congress

Published January 11, 2021
Category: North Korea

On January 9, the DPRK’s Permanent Mission to the UN sent out a press release reproducing a portion of a much longer report that North Korean media sources had released on the first days of the Party Congress. It appeared to contain a mildly hopeful message, taking note of the Singapore summit declaration that “assures the establishment of new DPRK-U.S. relationship.” Could the Biden administration perhaps avoid the downward spiral both Obama and Trump faced in their first years in office?

What the press release conveniently left out, however, was the stunning list of military ambitions the regime unfurled as well as the disappointing recitation of standard state socialist economic ideas. For a year, the regime appeared to acknowledge the failures of the Five Year Plan rolled out at the last Party Congress in 2016; expectations were raised in August that the Congress might signal a new course, however subtle. I strained to find it, seeing a vague commitment to a “people-centered” policy, but coupled with the standard exhortations to the party and the scattershot approach to economic policy in which everything—and therefore nothing—is prioritized.

This is not to say that the Congress document was pure déjà vu. To the contrary, it contains a quite striking new foreign policy doctrine that accurately reflects the current geostrategic stand-off. Heralding the approach as a new line, Kim Jung-un essentially argued for a new Communist International, with the deep historical irony that Russia is included as a member.

The foreign policy section of the report begins with the rapprochement with China, elevating the relationship to the core of its new foreign policy. For those who follow North Korea this might appear to be stating the obvious; North Korea’s overwhelming dependence on China is well-known. But relations were rocky in 2017-18 as Beijing finally shifted course on sanctions. As China finally clamped down on North Korea’s most significant sources of foreign exchange–from coal and iron ore to textiles and seafood—signs of economic distress became more clear.

As Evans Revere among others started to note by late 2019, however, Beijing was shifting course, openly proposing (along with Russia) a fundamental revision of the multilateral sanctions regime. The DPRK’s open embrace of China—if reciprocated—will now pose the single most pressing problem for the United States with respect to its North Korea policy. How far does the administration want to go in confronting China over sanctions evasion which can now only be described as wholesale and rampant? Will the new administration ramp up secondary sanctions in particular?

The paean to DPRK-China relations is followed immediately by a brief nod to the strengthening of ties with Russia, which now openly provides as much foreign aid to North Korean than all members of the OECD combined. The document also takes note of bilateral summits with Vietnam and Cuba as well, concluding that these initiatives will “steer the new political trend of safeguarding independence, justice and peace, all over the world.” Nor is such an expectation entirely fanciful. If North Korea can find an adequate economic cocoon among these countries and other enablers, it could well ride out multilateral sanctions.

The clear loser in the new foreign policy line: South Korea. No doubt, the Moon administration will look for some silver lining; the Congress statements did not rule out a rapprochement, of course. But the list of complaints is long, from the country’s military modernization program, to the inadequacy of its humanitarian and even tourism offers. Despite Moon’s heroic efforts, the country is rewarded by being lumped with the U.S. for pursuing a “hostile policy.”

For the Biden administration, the relatively good news is the modest attention devoted to the U.S. in the foreign policy section of the report and the reference to Singapore as the foundation for a way forward. But this is matched by the bad news, which comes in a lengthy—and leading—portion of the report devoted to the country’s military accomplishments and ambitions. The wish list for further procurements has gotten headlines because of its specificity and range: new solid propellant ICBMs with a still-longer range and MIRV’d to boot; the development of tactical nuclear weapons, which pose quite obvious headaches for conventional deterrence; a new military reconnaissance satellite and unmanned aerial systems; continuing pursuit of submarine capabilities; and even a “hypersonic gliding flight warhead.”

The bad news was to be found not only in new systems, but in open admissions of what was already known: that “the Party Central Committee achieved new great victories by vigorously leading the struggle for rapidly developing the nuclear force even after the great historic November event in 2017,” the tests that were followed by a moratorium. The message: just because we are not testing, do not think we are standing still.

The list of capabilities that North Korea seeks to acquire is probably beyond its fiscal and technological reach, although we have typically underestimated North Korean capabilities to our peril (as TaiMing Cheung and I have demonstrated at length). But from a practical standpoint, only one issue will matter: whether North Korea decides to press the Biden administration by a test—of whatever sort—that it cannot easily ignore.

Ankit Panda makes the reasonable case that Kim Jong-un could replicate the first years of the Obama and Trump administrations to get attention. I am more inclined to think that there is an element of bluff in the military focus and that Pyongyang will give Biden some latitude, particularly given their souring on Donald Trump in the aftermath of the Hanoi summit. But that is cold comfort if the buildup continues to raise the ultimate bribe price. Meaningful denuclearization continues to recede into the rear-view mirror, particularly if North Korea’s bid for more open Chinese support proves fruitful.

I wish I could find any other hopeful clues in the political and economic sections of the report. Clearly, Kim Jong-un is seeking to further institutionalize the political system by regularizing the Party Congress and taking on the new title of Party General Secretary. I will consider the new appointments in a subsequent post, but it is doubtful they will yield much comfort. And on the most important issue—the prospect for a new economic direction—the news is uniformly disappointing. The report is riddled with discussion of errors and mistakes on the economic front, and the need for a “people-centered” socialism that would address welfare. But a closer read of the report reveals that those errors were not those of the leadership in its pursuit of a “self-reliant” line, but of the party and state administration in failing to implement it with adequate fervor and diligence. What passes for the policy sections of the report revert to standard form of ambitious targets, exhortation, but little sign of a new direction.

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. 

 

Photo from Wikimedia commons.

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