Reading Tea Leaves: The Central Committee and Plenum and the Supreme People’s Assembly

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Luke Herman (University of California, San Diego)



The recent round of rhetorical escalation between North Korea, South Korea and the US crested just as two political gatherings were convening: a plenum of the Workers’ Party Central Committee and the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the country’s legislature. Both are top-down bodies that are used not to deliberate, but to propagate: to hand out the script. The meetings generated both interesting leadership moves and some new programmatic statements. The SPA edicts represent a full-throated statement of the intention to square the circle: to become a responsible nuclear power and aggressively pursuing a “space”—read “missile”—program while also undertaking economic reconstruction.

Leadership Changes

The personnel change that has attracted most attention was the appointment of Pak Pong Ju as premier, and his promotion to a full member of the Politburo. He replaces long-time party stalwart Choe Yong Rim; Choe rides off into the sunset as an Honorary Vice President. He appears to still hold his seat in the Politburo Presidium, though that could or may have already changed.

Pak’s appointment has stirred speculation that reforms might be in the works. He was premier from 2003 during the early phases of the 2002 reforms before they went into reverse and he was purged. As before, Pak heads the cabinet, the political body with the most immediate interest in economic policy. The meetings also provided the opportunity for turnover at a number of ministries that are germane for economic management, including agriculture, natural resources development, city management, land and environmental preservation, chemical and crude oil industries, education and health, as well as the removal of one vice premier.

Perhaps more interesting, but less reported, was the downgrading of several military and security officials in the party hierarchy. This could indicate an effort to strengthen the party, or at least to harden the division of labor between party and military? Hyon Yong Chol and Kim Kyok Sik, the Chief of KPA General Staff and Minister of the People’s Armed Forces respectively, were both made alternate members of the Politburo. This was surprising; both had been listed ahead of full members of the Politburo in official rankings, which should have indicated that they were at least of equal standing. Their immediate predecessors Ri Yong Ho and Kim Jong Gak held presidium sand full membership positions respectively. Ri fell in a high-profile purge last summer. Kim was transferred to a lesser post (rumored to be head of Kim Il Sung military university) and has been spotted a few times in public since being removed.

There was also turnover in the security apparatus, with Choe Pu Il—believed to be close to the Kim family--replacing Ri Myong Su as the Minister of People’s Security. Choe was also named an alternate member of the Politburo; again, this appeared to be a downgrade in status, as Ri had been a full member.

Like their predecessors, the two new ministerial appointments--Choe Pu Il at People’s Security and Kim Kyok Sik at People’s Armed Forces were added to the National Defense Commission, replacing Ri Myong Su and Kim Jong Gak respectively. But this, too, might signal an effort to generate a somewhat more marked division of labor between party, state and military.

The New Strategic Line: the Nuclear and Missile Half

What got much less attention in the Western media was the actual business of the SPA. This neglect is understandable given the stimulants required to plow through the purple prose. In fact, the new strategic line laid out at the Central Committee plenum is significant.

Those thinking that there is still a possibility that the North Koreans will negotiate away their nuclear weapons could find little encouraging. At the party plenum, it was emphasized that the new strategic line—staying a nuclear power while seeking economic changes--was “not a temporary countermeasure for coping with the rapidly changing situation but a strategic line to be always held fast to.” Nuclear weapons were never to be bargained away “as long as the imperialists and nuclear threats exist on earth.” Moreover, “the DPRK’s possession of nukes should be fixed by law and the nuclear armed forces should be expanded and beefed up qualitatively and quantitatively until the denuclearization of the world is realized.”

The SPA item “On Consolidating the Position of Nuclear Weapons for Self-Defense” did just that; it is a manifesto for a responsible nuclear power. In contrast to earlier rhetoric, the threat of pre-emption has clearly been eliminated. “The nuclear weapons of the DPRK can be used only by a final order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army to repel invasion or attack from a hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes.” North Korea does not promise no-first-use. But it will not use its weapons against non-nuclear states unless they join forces with the imperialists; South Korea is thus not exempt. The edict goes on to commit North Korea to managing their weapons safely and participating in international efforts for global denuclearization.

But in the meantime, it is quite explicit that the country’s nuclear forces will be upgraded. The Supreme Command of the KPA quickly followed up statements of doubt about actual capabilities to deliver a weapon by claiming that the country would pursue “cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means,” a North Korean euphemism for the miniaturization required to mount a warhead on a missile. The restarting of Yongbyon is also not just a signal. The action is designed to assure access to a stream of fissile material.

A separate edict committed the country to its space program, and set up a Space Development Bureau. The North Koreans may have something to gain from diverting massive amounts of resources to a space program, but have a hard time figuring out what it might be given the other pressing economic needs the country faces. The externalities for the development of the missile program, by contrast, are pretty clear.

We know; our engagement friends always point out that these could be standard opening gambits designed to maximize leverage in the next round. But what next round?  The evidence continues to mount that the possession of nuclear weapons has become an integral feature of the grand strategy, force posture and domestic political legitimation of the regime. Indeed, the recent exercises and the massive—even disproportionate--mobilization of forces by the US only revealed more clearly the underlying military asymmetries on the peninsula. As Keir Lieber and Daryl Press argue in Foreign Affairs, “the risk of North Korean nuclear war stems not from weakness on the part of the United States and South Korea but from their strength.” Were a small-scale conventional conflict to break out, the inferior North Korean military could very quickly be over-run were it to escalate. Why not try to deter such escalation from the outset by introducing nuclear uncertainty? From the perspective of a degraded military capability, a nuclear deterrent appears sadly rational.

The Economic Front

Reading the economic tea leaves is more difficult than the strategic military ones. A distinctive feature of state socialist systems with exhortatory strategies is that everything is a priority. Defense! Space! Coal and power must be developed vigorously! Heavy industry! Light industry! And so on.  We are reduced to guessing whether the order of tasks may have some bearing on what the government will actually do. For example, in the coverage of the SPA, reports lauded a number of heavy industry projects in the last budget cycle while suggesting that more attention will now be paid to light industry and agriculture.

But we are dubious of such efforts to second-guess the regime, in part because we don’t even have a clear conception of what the North Koreans themselves think they are doing. Some recent themes continue, though, such as the emphasis given to technology and “leapfrogging,” another unfortunate set of investment priorities when people are going hungry.

But we did notice two small signs of encouragement. The first is a stated commitment to improve the competitiveness of exports. The discussion of exports continues to talk about technology and indigenous capacity, but this could be read as recognition that what the North Koreans are currently trying to sell is just not cutting it. Second, there is an emphasis on the importance of foreign investment and stepping up joint ventures in the special economic zones.

The big problem is whether a country can simultaneously make threats about nuclear pre-emption, restart its nuclear reactor, engage in cyberattacks against its Southern neighbor and make threats about closing the joint industrial complex and at the same time be seen as an attractive site for foreign investment. To pose the question is to answer it. There will no doubt be firms—including Chinese ones—that will find a way to make money in North Korea, reformed or not. But the fundamental illogic of the country’s grand strategy seems fairly obvious to us. Except for those who can collateralize their investments with a flow of natural resources and a handful of firms willing to fly beneath the radar, who else is going to bother? The current games going on at Kaesong provide scant comfort that the regime can keep politics and economics on separate tracks.

The Dynasty Lives

We have inverted the order of the SPA’s business, but it is worth closing with the first two items on the agenda: a draft amendment to the Constitution and a new law on the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. These measures effectively turn the Kumsusan Palace (where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il both lie in state) into a monument that will be preserved in perpetuity as “a symbol of dignity and a great pride of the nation.”

But we could not help noting this comment about the allocation of the budget:

“44.8 percent of the total state budgetary expenditure for the economic development and improvement of people’s living standard was used for funding the building of edifices to be presented to the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung, the consolidation of the material and technological foundation of Juche-based, modern and self-supporting economy and the work for face-lifting the country.”

A reform plan that lists the building of edifices as its first priority does not augur well.

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