North Korea Party Congress Will Outshine U.S. Conventions but May Create Opportunity for Engagement

The party congress will emphatically reestablish the authority of the party, with Kim at the helm.
April 12, 2016 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on April 12, 2016.

America’s political silly season will rush toward a close with the two party conventions this summer, followed by the November presidential election. Both gatherings are likely to be lively. Indeed, Nixon political operative Roger Stone predicts riots if Donald Trump fails to win the GOP nod.

But both of these spectacles will fall short of the pageantry expected at next month’s communist party congress in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For the first time in 36 years, before current leader Kim Jong‐​un was born, the Korean Workers’ Party is gathering.

We still don’t know the exact date that delegates will convene—some observers speculate May 7. But North Koreans are deep in a 70‐​day campaign to prepare for the grand event. In the DPRK appearances are everything.

People don’t just spruce up government buildings and factories. Highway distance markers are being painted and decorated with stones. The Korean Central News Agency helpfully includes “news” from the campaign. Along with the usual stories of stupendous accomplishments at universities, steel factories, and waterways is a report on the “Pyongyang Potato Tissue Culture Factory.” The KCNA also reports on “work miracles”

Although the masses reportedly are marching as one behind the “Young Marshall,” the regime helpfully provides slogans as encouragement. When I visited years ago there were slogans in buildings, on buildings, over streets, on billboards, and more. One of the current mottoes, reported Anna Fifield of the Washington Post, is “Let us all become honorary victors in the ’70‐​day campaign’ of loyalty.” Turn your life over to others and feel good about yourself!

Of course, the regime isn’t quite so crass. It says the campaign is to “defend the leadership authority” of the KWP and resist the “U.S. imperialists.” That is why roughly 25 million people are being held in impoverished bondage. But then, at least Kim Jong‐​un has emphasized economic development; his father, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong‐​il, pushed a “military‐​first” policy.

The question for the U.S. is why the congress? It is only the seventh in the DPRK’s 68‐​year‐​history. The last one was held in October 1980, almost 36 years ago.

At the latter “Great Leader” Kim Il‐​sung inaugurated a system of monarchical communism when he announced that his son would succeed him. The more than 3000 delegates also affirmed Kim’s philosophy of “Juche,” or self‐​reliance.

In succeeding years the party seemed to lose relevance. Kim instituted the rule of one, eventually augmented by the rise of Kim Jong‐​il. After the latter took over he shifted power toward the military and away from the KWP. A party congress would have been almost superfluous.

No longer, however. Which is the most likely explanation for the new gathering. No doubt, the congress will be used to highlight the regime’s continuing military developments. Doing so at the KWP meeting will share prestige with the ruling party and emphasize its dominance over the military.

Since Kim Jong‐​un took over after his father’s death in December 2011, Kim fils has reshaped Pyongyang’s power structure. He turfed out most of the top officials appointed by and loyal to his father. He ruthlessly eliminated any challenge to his power: some 400 officials have been executed, including his uncle, once the regime number two, the defense minister, and others of high rank. Moreover, Kim moved decision‐​making back to the KWP.

The party congress will emphatically reestablish the authority of the party, with Kim at the helm. The gathering also will solidify the rise of Kim’s new generation of officials. Yang Moo‐​jin of the University of North Korean Studies said the objective was “the solidarity of its regime.”

Although he looks secure from challenge, his promiscuous resort to execution suggests he feels otherwise. Indeed, Kim’s rule might need bolstering. This month his regime suffered embarrassment from a raft of defections. A high‐​ranking intelligence officer fled to the ROK. So did 13 workers from a restaurant in North Korea. Employees who work overseas are chosen for their reliability and know their families will suffer if they flee. The group may have felt extra pressure to send home remittances to support the 70‐​day campaign amid declining demand (Seoul has urged its citizens to boycott North Korean eateries). Notably, the Chinese government abandoned precedent and did not hinder the defectors’ departure.

Moreover, Kim may use the congress to ratify his more reformist economic policies. The younger Kim appears committed to economic development, whether to improve the lot of his people or strengthen the nation which he rules. The changes are dramatic enough—a proliferation of markets—as to require a more formal framework. Kim likely will use the congress to formalize his new economic initiatives. Ruediger Frank of the University of Vienna observed: “all major reforms of state socialism—be it in China under Deng Xiaoping, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev or Vietnam under the slogan of doi moi—have been announced at such regular party congresses or related events.”

A more robust and systematic program of economic reform may be the best hope for the North. Such a strategy obviously offers the greatest opportunity for the nation to escape from immiserating poverty. Economic reform also creates the possibility of political liberalization. China has demonstrated that moving toward markets does not automatically deliver democracy. But the PRC today is far freer in every way than during the rule of Mao Zedong.

Perhaps a more secure Kim Jong‐​un would be willing to similarly relax political as well as economic controls. Since nothing else yet has worked, Washington should greet the congress by expressing a willingness to talk to Pyongyang, and not only about nuclear weapons, which almost is certainly a dead‐​end with the Kim dynasty. With war the worst of all possibilities and sanctions able to hurt but not transform, the U.S. needs to explore other options.

America’s political conventions will be consequential since they will determine who takes over the helm in Washington. But the DPRK’s political meet‐​up will offer the ultimate in political choreography. It also could ratify a change of direction in Pyongyang. The U.S. should encourage such a possibility. While the chance of success might be small, that would be better than continuing today’s dead‐​end approach.

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