The two documents we have from the 7th Party Congress so far—Kim Jong Un’s opening speech and his report on the work of the central committee—have one overarching theme: normalization. The Kim Jung Un era has officially arrived; get used to it. (links to the speeches can be found on the KCNA site here).
But nothing in the Party Congress speeches suggest any significant changes with respect to the country’s foreign and military posture, meaning that Kim Jong Un thinks he can double down on the byungjin line of maintaining his nuclear weapons while simultaneously pursuing economic development. Whether the external environment will permit such a normalization—particularly on the economic front—is an open question. However, nothing in the speech signaled any breakthroughs with respect to economic policy either. Perhaps in implicit recognition that this may not be as easy as it looks, much of the central committee report was devoted to underlining the top-down, leaderist nature of the system and demanding complete loyalty and discipline. Plus ça change…
The Political Dimension
The purpose of Party Congresses is to review the accomplishments of the “current period”—the time since the last congress—give guidance with respect to policy and make any necessary changes in organization and personnel; the last item on the agenda is likely to be particularly important given the generational shift that is in train. These messages are delivered to a large body of 3,467 delegates, including 1,545 party officials, 786 lower-level party workers, 719 from the military, 423 state officials, and a variety of other elites.
But the “period under review” in this case is no less than the 36 years since the staging of the 6th Party Congress in October 1980, when Kim Jong Il’s status as heir apparent was made public. Kim Jong Un’s opening speech took exactly that long narrative arc. The speech led with a eulogy for the pantheon of anti-Japanese and revolutionary heroes, leaders and intellectuals who had died since 1980, calling out dozens of names and effectively highlighting the generational shift. He also characterized the period since Kim Il Sung suspended party congresses as a long one of “grim struggle” during which “the situation of our revolution was very grave and complex.”
The message: those days are over, the Korean Workers Party is being reconvened, and it is time to turn the page to the Kim Jong Un era.
What, if anything, looks new? The answers are subtle and start not with policy but with a reaffirmation of the country’s political structure. If the party and even the central committee are back, they are only back in the context of a restatement of the monolithic framework that puts the leader at the center. Nor was this left to the imagination through the pageantry, show and sycophantic speeches; the central committee report was sprinkled with references to the leader, leaders and Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism as well. An example:
“The WPK has regarded it as the core task to absolutize and devotedly defend the leadership authority of the leader in party building and activities and waged an uncompromising struggle against phenomena contrary to it so that the center of unity and leadership is firmly ensured.”
The message: enemies will be dealt with as Jang Song Thaek was. Given this focus on loyalty and discipline, we would expect that the Organization and Guidance Department will continue to play a crucial role in the country’s political structure as Kim Jong Un fills a number of vacancies in the party’s leadership structure in coming days.
Somewhat greater uncertainty, however, surrounds the way that Kim Jong Un will use party structures and the government going forward, and if it matters in any material way. Above the central committee—as in China—are the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee. But the latter has only three members: Kim Jong Un, Kim Yong Nam (who is 88), and Hwang Pyong So. In theory, there are a lot of posts that could be filled if Kim Jong Un wants to use these structures in a more deliberative way. Nothing said so far suggests any such move, but if so it might mean a degrading of the National Defense Commission.
It has long been thought that any mention of the government is good, since it suggests recognition of the importance of strengthening the cabinet and technocrats. The Central Committee report makes passing mention of the fact that “it is necessary to strengthen the people's government and enhance its function and role” and states that “we should conduct the state unified guidance and strategic management of the economic work in a responsible manner.” But the economic parts of the speech do not inspire much confidence that the government is about to be used to steer a change in course.
One theory that I found plausible—advanced by Bob Carlin at 38North—was that Kim Jong Un would use the Party Congress to declare victory with respect to the country’s weapons programs and pivot toward economic themes. It is possible to read the speeches this way, I suppose. But if anyone was expecting a fundamental change of direction to come out of the 7th Party Congress, we should have been warned off by the “70-day campaign” that preceded it. Nothing exemplifies what is wrong with North Korea’s economic policy more than these hortatory efforts to rally the country around prodigious feats of greater effort and output.
The economic components of the report made a passing reference to returning to a five-year planning cycle that for some reason was deemed newsworthy by a number of outlets. But this proposal was nested into a hodge podge of political as well as economic proposals, including the need to “further increase the might of the politico-ideological power and military power.” The rest of the section of the report on “socialist reconstruction” was thin on detail, and contained the usual laundry list of priorities and platitudes. If anything, the order in which the economic ideas for the future were rolled out was dispiriting because of the priority placed on scientific and technological leapfrogging and the attention given to the country’s space program. Do we need to underline the absurdity of a space program in a country with significant malnutrition?
A bit more detail could be gleaned from the review of the past—“successes made”—where the speech cycled through the economy sector by sector. The only cryptic hint I could find to the “pivot” hypothesis was that the byungjin line might have been an artifact of particular circumstances:
“As required by the prevailing situation and the developing revolution, the WPK advanced the strategic line of simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and the building of nuclear force and worked hard for its implementation (emphasis added).”
But this is thin gruel when placed against the broader context in which the weapons program was discussed, and neither the recitation of past successes nor the socialist reconstruction aspects of the speech gave any serious clues of a new direction.
Kim Jong Un could well continue to do more of what he is currently doing, however, which is to gradually relax the reins on private economic activity and thus permit de facto marketization to proceed. And there are of course gains from such a strategy over the status quo. But in the absence of parallel work to build the institutions and policies of a mixed economy such efforts are necessarily self-limiting, and nothing in this regard appeared on offer.
In sum, as of the first two days of the Congress the pivot to the economy disappointed, showing a leadership still unable to clearly distinguish between grandiose objectives and showcase projects and the less glamorous slog of incremental reforms.
If this Congress sought to send any messages to the outside world in its first two days, the message was “get used to us continuing to do what we have been doing.”
The discussion of foreign policy was structured around a new tagline—“global independence”—which returns to themes of sovereignty stressed by the non-aligned movement. Not only did the US and Japan come in for critical comment, but “those countries surrounding the Korean Peninsula [read China] should respect the sovereignty of the DPRK” as well.
Everyone was watching for how the speech would address the nuclear question, and the answer was “with total self-confidence.” The opening speech returned repeatedly to the nuclear and missile tests and satellite launch as demonstrations of the Congress’ central message: the "magnificent and exhilarating" achievements of the regime. The single mention of the subject in the central committee report deserves being cited in full, since it has become the new credo of a nuclear North Korea:
“As a responsible nuclear weapons state, our Republic will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes, as it had already declared, and it will faithfully fulfill its obligation for non-proliferation and strive for the global denuclearization.”
Any questions? The byungjin line is alive and well.
On North-South relations, the crux of the speech was the sanctity of the “three charters”—the 1972 Joint Statement and the 2000 and 2007 summit documents—and the standard line of achieving the “independent unification” of the peninsula, starting with an improvement in North-South relations. Reflecting the hard right turn in Park Geun Hye’s foreign policy since the fourth test, the gesture to resume talks was immediately rejected—as the North no doubt knew it would be—as disingenuous given the ongoing pursuit of its nuclear option.
In the past, Party Congresses were not only domestic but international affairs, with foreign delegations in attendance following the Soviet model. If this Congress sought to send any messages to the outside world in its first two days, the message was “get used to us continuing to do what we have been doing.” But the political theatre of the Congress unfolds under the shadow of UNSC Resolution 2270 and an environment that is become more and more difficult. It is not clear how some of the aspirations such as expanding trade and diplomatic relations will fare. China sent a fawning official message on the opening of the Congress, but Beijing’s true intentions will only be clear as we see how far they are willing to go in implementing sanctions. Until that question is answered, we won’t know whether this is a new era or the fin de siècle of the Kim dynasty.