The Workers¡¯ Party Congress is the highest level gathering of North Korea¡¯s most influential political body. The event, the first of its kind in 36 years, is scheduled to be held in early May, and will likely be used by leader Kim Jong Un as an intended vehicle to deliver reforms relating to institutions and personnel, and as a means to rally support for his own leadership.
In the past, Party congresses have been used to announce both Kim Il Sung¡¯s Monolithic Ideological System and Kim Jong Il¡¯s leadership succession. It therefore appears that Kim Jong Un will seek to use it as a platform to announce the arrival of his own era, having focused on asserting his control through the dual approaches of "love for the people" and fearpolitik. For this reason, the political, economic, and personnel changes announced will be closely watched in order to determine how his leadership will differ from that of past generations.
Kim Jong Un to overhaul structural organization, return power to Workers¡¯ Party
One item of specific interest to be examined during the Party Congress is whether a change to Kim Jong Un¡¯s status within the leadership will be announced. Over the past four years, he has worked to reduce the power of the military that grew disproportionately during his father¡¯s reign and reestablish the authority of the Workers¡¯ Party, signaling a shift toward a Party-centric system of governance. There are strong projections that Kim Jong Un will replace a significant portion of the mid- and low-ranking Party officials with newcomers to consolidate his loyalty base.
In explaining the pivot toward Party-driven politics, Cho Han Bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification [KINU] notes, ¡°Songun politics was essentially martial law, instituted in response to the national crisis that occurred during the mid to late 1990s when the famine hit. Under a socialist system, songun politics is an abnormal form of governance.¡± Military-led politics ¡°had in effect already come to an end when Kim Jong Un assumed the leadership,¡± and the overhaul that will take place at the Party Congress is aimed at returning the power that had swayed heavily towards the military and Jang Song Thaek¡¯s executive branch back to the Party¡¯s Organization and Guidance Department and law enforcement bodies, he added.
There is also a belief that Kim Jong Un will use the Party Congress to claim the seat of General Secretary of the Workers¡¯ Party as well as President. One expectation is that he will declare the establishment of a revised Monolithic Ideological System to solidify his foundation for leadership.
However, some experts question whether the younger Kim has the capacity to anoint himself with the two posts that even his father Kim Jong Il evidently declined to assume. In light of observations that the current leader has been more focused on securing actual power, some believe he will not feel the need for such highly symbolic positions.
Introduction of partial taxes, financial reforms may be on the agenda
Earlier in the year, there were expectations that the North would open up its economy for reforms after Kim Jong Un placed greater emphasis on building a "strong economy" in his New Year¡¯s address. With the following fourth nuclear test and long-range rocket launch signaling an intention to move in a more confrontational direction, it remains to be seen whether a clear vision will be announced.
However, in the face of strong international sanctions, there is a possibility that the North will attempt internal economic reforms in order to secure funds for governance. This may entail a potential expansion of its most recent economic management plan [June 28th measures], which has been tested in a limited capacity from 2012, allowing for the allocation of resources based on each individual¡¯s contributions, or granting factories, companies, and shops autonomy in management.
Some experts believe Pyongyang will introduce an official tax system in some form to regulate market fees and other areas. North Korea held a gathering for banking staff in December for the first time in a quarter century, aimed at discussing ways to invigorate operations. Therefore, new financial measures to be announced by Kim Jong Un may be on the horizon.
¡°The North may make the pojeon system [of cooperative farm units; smaller than bunjo] or state-factory individual management system official. It may also introduce a tax system that falls shy of allowing private property,¡± Professor Lim Eul Chul from the Institute for Far Eastern Studies [IFES] said. ¡°Especially with the development of the markets, it may see the inevitable need for bank deposits and loans, and this could mean financial policy reform."
When it comes to changes in foreign policy, the outlook for reform is not so bright. A North Korea analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity said, ¡°There has been speculation that the North may be proactive in opening up for reform in order to normalize relations with China, but since Kim Jong Un is still adamant on upholding the current system, it is likely he will move only on ¡®limited¡¯ or ¡®partial reforms¡¯ which do not threaten his leadership.¡±
Drive for support may hurt Kim Jong Un¡¯s leadership
Despite frosty inter-Korean relations, Pyongyang may put forth a new proposal to move toward creating a federation between the two Koreas or signing a peace treaty. This would be to show people both in and outside the country that the North has taken the initiative for issues on the Korean Peninsula and to solidify unity among the public.
Kim Jong Un is also expected to use the Party Congress as a platform to further promote his nuclear and missile ambitions, despite opposition from the international community, intensifying his argument to be recognized as a nuclear state. The recent H-bomb test claims and long-range rocket launch will likely be announced as some of his greatest achievements at the gathering.
However, experts agree that Kim Jong Un¡¯s ambitions to secure greater loyalty through the Party, which has already lost its political authority, will fall short of the intended results. Cadres and younger members of the public already believe the Party gathering will be focused more on nuclear development than improving people¡¯s livelihoods, and this could trigger greater animosity toward a leader who they see as being obsessed with political theatrics.
¡°Whatever political rhetoric Kim Jong Un delivers, the jangmadang [markets, official or otherwise] generation simply do not feel that they are getting anything from the state,¡± Cho Han Bum from KINU said. ¡°People are worried about going through a ¡®barley hump¡¯ in the face of strong sanctions, and to hold a Party Congress that involves a massive amount of money may eventually deal a blow to Kim Jong Un,¡± he added.
An official from South Korea¡¯s Ministry of Unification predicts that although the Party Congress will be promoted as having been ¡°a great success¡± after it is over, ¡°it is unlikely the North will see real benefits¡± from the event. It will be important to keep a close watch on how the massive costs that drained the state coffers and fatigue among residents built up from endless mobilizations will affect the stability of the leadership after the event is over, the official added.
*Translated by Jiyeon Lee
*Edited by Lee Farrand