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North Korea

North Korea’s ‘rare’ party congress only shows a country at a standstill

Donald Kirk says beyond the spectacle and a vague plan for economic development, the first Workers’ Party congress since 1980 only lays bare, once again, the country’s long-standing problems

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 11:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 11:01am

The operative word for the foreign media covering the seventh Workers’ Party congress in North Korea, held over one long four-day weekend in Pyongyang, was “rare”.

North Korea had not had such a conflab since 1980 when the late “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, founder of the dynasty, convened the sixth congress. The idea then was to fortify the succession of his son, Kim Jong-il, as rightful heir to the kingdom, making certain he had vital military posts.

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This time around, with Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un, firmly ensconced on the throne after his father’s death in December 2011, there was no such obvious reason for staging a congress. Yet the young leader made sure to orchestrate the whole show to perfection, from sweeping views of the 3,400 delegates applauding his every utterance in unison, to a colourful mass “celebration” on Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang the day after it was over.

There was, however, nothing “rare” about this performance. North Korea never seems to miss a beat when the time comes to stage a show reaffirming the centrality of the power of the regime, the discipline instilled in aides, adherents and ordinary citizens.

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Who can forget those Arirang games enacted by tens of thousands of performers in the May Day Stadium on the Daedong River in Pyongyang, or the stunning parade of military prowess last October 10, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party? Was a single high-stepping soldier out of sync? Hardly. Was there a flaw in last weekend’s gathering in Pyongyang of the party faithful? Not likely.

But the question remains, why did Kim feel compelled to go to the trouble – and huge expense – of calling the congress when no one doubts his absolute control? Was it to confirm his authority, as so often reported, or to inculcate the concept of byungjin – military plus economic power?

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Certainly the vaunted nuclear weapons programme remains embedded in the collective ego of the regime while the need to jump-start an economy that was superior to that of South Korea in the 1960s has to be a top priority. If no one expected North Korea’s problems to be visible during the congress, however, one might have hoped for new ideas, new directions, that might suggest serious reforms.

Yet, there was nothing of the sort for shoring up the economy even while Kim announced what he said was a five-year programme for making it happen. Yes, he appeared to show the shifting emphasis by wearing a business suit, as his grandfather had done at the sixth party congress, but the term “empty suit” aptly describes this dictator talking vaguely about economic development while offering no details for going about it.

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Perhaps the biggest single accomplishment of the congress was that Kim assumed the title of party “chairman”. His grandfather had been named “chairman” of the party before the Korean war but preferred the title of “president” – and remains “eternal president”. His father also made himself “chairman” – not of the party, where he remains in death as “eternal general secretary”, but of the National Defence Commission.

The message from this congress was that the party, with Kim Jong-un as chairman, has assumed supremacy over the armed forces, which had presented a challenge to the young leader, at least to judge from the scores of executions, including that of its defence minister.

A line-up of the new presidium of the party, however, showed how little has changed.

Choe Ryong-hae, once a vice-marshal in charge of political control over the armed forces, was there along with Hwang Pyong-so, also a vice-marshal, who had taken over Choe’s military post, the most powerful figure in the armed forces after Kim Jong-un, the supreme commander.

True, Ri Yong-gil, formerly military chief of staff, earlier reported to have been executed, surfaced as an alternate member of the party’s political bureau, but the revelation that he had survived while bereft of his military post only fortified the image of the party taking charge.

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In the end, the real news from the congress was that there was no real news while Kim remained defiant in the face of strengthened UN sanctions imposed after the North’s fourth nuclear test in January and the launch of a satellite in February. North Korea, he proclaimed, was a “responsible nuclear state” ready to negotiate but not about to give up its nukes and missiles, the bedrock of national pride.

In a shake-up of party officials, announced on the last day of the congress, there was no sign of anyone with the authority, or the independence, to bring about reform in the style of China’s Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ). Far from it, the congress fortified a leadership committed to nothing more than its own self-preservation.

Kim, back in his Mao suit, presided over the parade of thousands living in the confines of Pyongyang, but there was little to celebrate elsewhere.

For North Koreans outside the capital, the home of the privileged, the cycle of poverty, hardship and repression goes on while the regime saps direly needed resources from an economy desperately in need of all the help it can get. The final message from the congress: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea