What’s significant—and not—about North Korea’s Party Congress

For Asia watchers, all eyes are on the North Korea Workers Party Congress convening in Pyongyang starting May 6. Curiosity abounds about what will be discussed, who will be promoted and dismissed, and if Kim Jong Un’s byungjin policy (“parallel progress” of nuclear weapons and economic development) will morph more toward the economy than the military. I want to caution against the inclination to hyper-focus on the party congress (including on what’s “new”) and over-read its significance.

The Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) held its first party congress in 1946, and the idea was to hold regular plenums every five years. For those who ask why the meeting is held now, after a 36-year hiatus, it might help to know that even under Kim Il Sung—the grandfather and “Great Leader,” under whose watch the party enjoyed the most status and influence—full meetings of the party delegates took place irregularly: 1946, 1948, 1956, 1961, 1970, 1980. Numerous central committee meetings, party conferences, and other smaller gatherings were held more frequently.

Past legacy

Like any grand convocation of political parties, there is a scripted and ritualistic aspect that will be apparent in the seventh congress: narrative of overcoming obstacles and hardships, often placed in the DPRK’s way by hostile foreign powers; achievements in the economic, cultural, and ideological path toward revolutionary socialism; the importance of Kim Il Sung’s vision and leadership, and so on. 

There is also a regular business component: the selection of new members to the Central Committee, which expanded during the grandfather’s tenure; discussion of economic and other problems such as cultural backwardness and wavering loyalties in society; and the rooting out of dissenters and challengers to Kim and his loyal supporters.

Like any grand convocation of political parties, there is a scripted and ritualistic aspect that will be apparent in the seventh congress.

Many of these institutionalized elements will be evident in the coming days of the seventh congress. And if people find some developments “shocking” and therefore “substantive,” we should remember that a year before the 1948 congress, 40,000 to 60,000 party members of the “wrong” faction were purged (expelled). It took the almighty Kim Il Sung the first three congresses to consolidate his power. We should not expect the young grandson, who lacks a power base of his own and has no revolutionary credentials, to work miracles through his first and only meeting of the party.

It’s the economy…

Every government worries about the impact of the economy on political leaders’ legitimacy and authority. North Korea is no exception. Kim Il Sung spent a lot of time designing, calculating, building support for, and squashing opponents of his economic vision. From the early 1960s through the 1970s, the DPRK was hell-bent on building an “industrial socialist state” from the literal ashes of the Korean War and managed to outpace South Korea in economic indices of growth and standards of living until the early 1970s.

The grandfather’s emphasis on industrialization will most likely be modified toward light industries for mass consumption under the grandson. But there is likely to be a common emphasis on autonomy and self-reliance, partly because the DPRK economy is being squeezed by sanctions and because it is part of the young Kim’s political inheritance.

At the 1980 congress, in his long address to the delegates, Kim Il Sung stated:

“Relying on the foundations of an independent national industry and the material basis laid for equipping all branches of the national economy with up-to-date techniques already in the period of the Five-Year Plan [1957-61] our Party saw that a powerful struggle was unrolled in the Seven-Year Plan [1961-1970] period to build an independent modern industry which is comprehensively developed, possessed of a solid raw-material base of its own and equipped with new techniques and to effect the all-round technical reconstruction of the national economy.”

I would not be surprised to hear a variation of this theme from the mouth of Kim Jong Un. It’s vague enough with no specific benchmarks to reach, inspiring enough for party cadres, and prepares the country for hard work and sacrifice at any time. But it does focus on the importance of modernizing the economic base.

So, we know we should expect some fanfare about military achievements (especially nuclear), some shuffling of party elites, and emphasis on the need for loyalty and support of the Kim regime and vision. What that vision is and how realistic it may be is what we don’t know.