By Sandip Kumar Mishra*
After a long gap, North Korea is holding the 7th Workers’ Party Congress from 6 May. There are more than a hundred journalists from various countries who have been invited to report the event – but there is not much reporting about the actual context and reasons for the Party Congress. The Congress, which was supposed to happen every five years, has earlier been quite irregular after the third edition. The last three Party Congresses were held in 1961, 1970 and 1980 after an interval of ten years each. However, the current one is happening after a gap of 36 years.
The first concern is the reason for such a long gap. Generally, it is attributed to the decline in the North Korean economy, increasing isolation after the demise of socialist allies, the death of Kim Il-sung, natural calamities of the mid-1990s, political instability of the Kim Jong-il regime and so on. The consensus is that since North Korea was facing one crisis after another, the Workers’ Party Congress could not be held. The explanation is not satisfactory as there were many other state and party activities that continued during the period. However, it needs to be underlined among all other events, the Party Congress witnesses the largest participation and any mishap means a huge embarrassment for the ruling regime. Furthermore, in the Party Congress, the future policy orientation and leadership are decided. Since the North Korean leadership has not been very clear about their future orientation in these years, the leadership has normally avoided any such gathering. Also, Kim Jong-il’s political weakness warranted that he should bring together leaders in relatively smaller gatherings than in the Party Congress.
The next important issue is, why has North Korea decided to hold the Party Congress now when the situation is, if not worse, at least similar? Is there any shift in North Korea’s path, which might be announced in the Party Congress? These questions are not easy to answer since there is limited information about North Korea. However, it would be pertinent to flag a few points and predictions, which might be helpful in understanding the Party Congress.
First, Kim Jong-un wants to show his confidence and stability to both domestic as well as international audiences by having the Party Congress. Even if no big outcomes are announced, the very occurrence of the Congress means that the leadership has a strong grip on the country. By having a Congress, Kim Jong-un wants to project ‘normalcy’ in North Korea.
Second, there is optimism that North Korea through the Party Congress wants to announce some kind of a roadmap for economic reforms. Kim Jong-un has modified his father’s ‘military-first’ policy to byungjin policy, which means emphasis on both military and economy. North Korea has had two rounds of nuclear and several missile tests in the Kim Jong-un era and it is time to venture into the difficult but dire issue of economic reforms.
Third, the pessimist may argue that since the Party Congress was not held for many years and North Korea had no option but to organise it now. Thus, expecting something dramatic or even important to emerge from the Party Congress would be over-ambitious. Generally, even the smallest moves by North Korea are over-analysed and debated but ultimately they do not result in any significant changes in North Korea.
Fourth, North Korea is going through its worse phase of international sanctions because of its nuclear and missile tests and the regime wants to convey that these sanctions have no effect and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes are non-negotiable.
Fifth, it is also said that when North Korea announced last year that it would have its Party Congress in May 2016, there were possibilities that North Korea-China relations would improve, and a breakthrough in the inter-Korea relations was also imminent. During those months, North Korea was trying to reach out to as many countries as possible and the North Korean Prime Minister and Foreign Minister visited more than a dozen countries including India to diversify Pyongyang’s relations with the outside world. At that point, North Korea expected that after these important achievements along with its progress in nuclear and missile programmes, it could have a Party Congress that would consolidate regime. Even though all these calculations have gone wrong, North Korea has no option but to have the Party Congress as any withdrawal would show weakness.
Having enumerated these explanations for the timing and context of the 7th Workers’ Party Congress, it is difficult to say which one is more appropriate. However, the Party Congress must be seen at least as a search for future stability and confidence for the Kim Jong-un regime. The new leadership is trying to move beyond the Kim Jong-il era and establish an image of Jong-un similar to Kim Il-sung period, when the leader was considered to be supreme, confident and overt. In the past five years, Kim Jong-un has tried to achieve this objective by being bold in his moves, including punishing and rewarding military and political elite and also by incessant and aggressive nuclear and missile tests. It is hard to say whether he has been successful until now, but it would not be inappropriate to see the 7th Workers’ party Congress in the light of this objective.
*Sandip Kumar Mishra
Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS