North Korea’s historic congress a missed opportunity

Instead of putting forward an agenda that would bring his country international acceptance and economic grow, Kim Jong-un chose symbolism over substance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 May, 2016, 10:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 May, 2016, 10:20pm

North Korea’s most important political event in 36 years offered a chance for leader Kim Jong-un to put forward a policy agenda that would bring his isolated country international acceptance and economic growth and development. Instead, the opportunity was squandered, with the seventh congress of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea being about symbolism and slogans rather than substance. Vows to improve living standards and foreign relations appeared a break from the past, but in the absence of details, were merely rhetoric. That will continue to be the case as long as nuclear weapons and missiles remain a priority for the regime.

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The main objective of the four-day congress was to show unity and strength. Kim was elevated to party chairman, ending doubts about his hold on power. In a three-hour opening speech, he announced the country’s first five-year plan in four decades, raised the possibility of pursuing links to the global economy and offered talks with arch-rivals the US and South Korea. In remarks aimed at calming a region jittery from a series of weapons tests, he pledged nuclear arms would be used only if his country’s sovereignty was threatened. Such comments would be reassuring were Kim a trustworthy leader and his regime transparent. But secretive arms programmes that have violated international rules and led to ever-tougher UN Security Council sanctions reveal a regime more interested in intimidation and instability than peace. That was made plain by the congress confirming the leader’s “byungjin” strategy of concurrently pursuing the parallel goals of economic development and nuclear weapons. These are incompatible aims; apart from the huge expense of building and testing such arms, there will be no foreign investment or outside financial help for poverty-stricken North Korea while it remains a threat to neighbours and rivals.

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China, long the North’s staunchest ally, is equally anxious about the provocations and joined the latest sanctions. Its efforts to resume six-party talks in Beijing to end the nuclear threat have been shunned by Pyongyang, leaving no option. If Kim had announced that the nuclear programme was being scrapped or frozen and initiated economic reforms based on free markets and entrepreneurship, it would have been a positive move for North Koreans and the world. His promises at the congress to boost agriculture, manufacturing and electricity supplies, while necessary, will require financial resources and expertise to turn into reality. There will be no such help for the country until its leaders admit mistakes and show a willingness to correct them.