On May 6, North Korea will convene the Seventh National Congress of the Korean Workers Party in Pyongyang—it’s the first such gathering in 36 years. Unlike the previous meeting in 1980 (when world leaders came for the pomp and circumstance), attendance will purportedly be limited to North Korea’s ruling elites. The primary goal will be to fully enshrine the leadership of Kim Jong Un atop the North Korean system, promote a younger generation of loyal subordinates, and convey that the future is looking up.
Kim is the third member of the Kim family to wield absolute power over the northern half of the Korean peninsula since the regime’s establishment in 1948. In no small part, he must try to convince the elites and citizens of North Korea that he will not be the last.
The North’s survival over nearly 70 years in power is difficult for the outside world to grasp. The Kim family has relied on guile, manipulation, historical mythology, surveillance, and unimaginable repression to sustain a uniquely adversarial system that is both dynastic and totalitarian.
The price paid by the people of the North has been horrific. The citizenry has endured international isolation, economic privation, and unconditional subordination to the leadership’s grandiose, warped visions, including a level of militarization without parallel anywhere in the world.
Nuclear weapons, the elephant in the room
Even worse, North Korea is now a nuclear-armed state. It is the only country to ever withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and has tested nuclear weapons on four occasions, the only state in the world to undertake nuclear tests in the 21st century. In mid-March, Kim Jong Un pledged that North Korea would conduct a fifth test in the near future, which many expect will be in conjunction with the Party Congress this week.
Pyongyang also continues to pursue development of a wide variety of ballistic missiles and has engaged in a flurry of recent tests, most of which have been spectacular failures. It says otherwise to its own citizens, urging them to celebrate North Korea’s supposed achievements.
North Korea also insists that it is now a full-fledged nuclear weapons state with capabilities equivalent to the established nuclear powers. These claims remain aspirational and without a basis in fact. Pyongyang claims that its most recent nuclear test (conducted in very early January) was a fully successful test of a thermonuclear weapon, and that it possesses a miniaturized warhead that it can deliver on both land-based and sea-launched missiles.
North Korea continues to make halting, incremental improvement in its programs, but few experts give credence to these claims. None, however, doubt the regime’s determination to persist with these programs, regardless of the economic and systemic consequences.
The cumulative results of North Korean militarization are extraordinary.
The citizens of North Korea have been told for decades that survival in a hostile world necessitates pursuit of advanced weapons to deter nuclear attack by the United States. It also claims that its economic backwardness is explained by the predatory designs of the United States and its “follower forces,” which leave North Korea no alternative other than undertaking its own weapons programs.
The cumulative results of North Korean militarization are extraordinary. Until the early 1970s, the per capita GDP of the North exceeded that of the Republic of Korea, then in the early stages of its economic development. South Korea is now the 12th or 13th biggest economy in the world (depending on how it’s measured), and its GDP is approximately 35 times the size of its impoverished northern neighbor.
Kim at the wheel
Kim Jong Un assumed power following the death of his father in December 2011. In 2013, he put forward his byung-jin policy, premised on the claim that North Korea could achieve simultaneous success in nuclear weapons and in economic advancement.
Few outside North Korea believe this is possible. Moreover, the increasingly stringent sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council on North Korea seek to convey to Pyongyang that it cannot expect to achieve economic modernization and nuclear weapons development at the same time—nor that the outside world will accept North Korea’s claims to legitimacy as a nuclear armed state.
[T]he spread of information technology and internationalization would very likely prove a bigger threat to the survival of the Kim regime than the military threats and malign designs it sees as directed against it.
Though educated for several years at a private boarding school in Switzerland as a teenager, there is nothing worldly about Kim Jong Un. He has not traveled abroad since his elevation to top leadership, and he is not known to have met any foreign heads of state. It’s not clear that he even seeks such opportunities, except on terms that others deem unacceptable. If anything, the spread of information technology and internationalization would very likely prove a bigger threat to the survival of the Kim regime than the military threats and malign designs it sees as directed against it.
Kim’s more immediate and pressing agenda is to install in power a younger generation of leaders who are loyal to him and have the requisite skills to somehow advance North Korea’s parlous economic circumstances. But Kim (as with his father and grandfather before him) continues to insist that North Korea will follow no one’s script except its own.
Is this credible, even to the North’s own citizens, growing numbers of whom now possess at least rudimentary knowledge of the outside world and grasp their acute backwardness? Kim Jong Un, who most often seems impatient and impetuous, must somehow convince others that there is a way out.
But what if neither Kim nor his subordinates sees an exit from their prevailing circumstances? Does he even understand the agonizing choices that North Korea confronts? Are there others in the leadership prepared to convey these realities to him, at risk to their own well-being and perhaps even their own lives? It seems very unlikely that any such doubts will be conveyed at the Party Congress, but it seems equally unlikely that some of those in attendance have not contemplated these possibilities.