Today’s SPA Session: What’s the Purpose?

The question on everyone’s lips today is as follows: What decisions will emerge from the extraordinary 6th session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) in Pyongyang? The session is “extraordinary” because it is one of those rare times when more than one session of the rubber stamp North Korean parliament is held in a single calendar year, but will the results be equally extraordinary?

The SPA ordinarily convenes in April, whereupon it is supposed to hear reports on the results of the previous year’s activities and debate the political decisions to come. That is not quite what happens in any rubber stamp legislature, but what we can say is that the 5th session of the 12th SPA fulfilled the organ’s role, whatever that has come to mean, back on April 13th.

At that time, Kim Jong Eun was anointed 1st Chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC), completing his ascent to all the major levers of state and Party power. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that today’s meeting will be about Kim Jong Eun’s power at all. Of course the opportunity to fill chairs in the NDC might be taken, but that does not provide sufficient cause to convene an extraordinary session; that type of thing can wait for next April.

Therefore, speculation has long focused on the idea that the ‘June 28th Policy’ of economic management measures and/or SEZ (Special Economic Zone) expansion are to form the body of the agenda. In the past, economic measures have been announced by the Cabinet or via an order handed down by the SPA Standing Committee; however, there are some reasons why that process might have been amended this time.

Not least among these is the need to hype all the changes while lending credibility to the decisions by having them written into law by the nation’s highest sovereign organ. North Korea’s Socialist Constitution states that the SPA is the body that must “deliberate and approve the State plan for the development of the national economy and report on its implementation,” so there is nothing odd in it being chosen to play that role.

Of course, if the agenda is economic then the meeting will just be a formality on the road to enshrining the June 28th Policy, ‘On the establishing of a new economic management system in our own style’, which was first made public by Daily NK in early July. It is widely believed that the economic changes it contains will go into effect on October 1st (see linked articles for further details), making the timing of today’s meeting highly compelling.

Yet there are also rumors of significant economic moves that are unrelated to that policy. Notably, Tokyo Shimbun reported on Sunday that SEZs are to be established at Nampo, Haeju and Sinuiju. North Korea is also actively trying to attract investors to Chongjin and Kimchaek in North Hamkyung Province, while Rasun is making significant moves forward. One might say that North Korea is seeing something of a boom in ‘walled-in capitalism’, a form of constrained development economics that well suits the North’s ruling methodology.

Jang Sung Taek supposedly explained North Korea’s SEZ expansion plans to China when he was in Beijing last month. Unsurprisingly, his Chinese interlocutors are said to have demanded that North Korea ensure a viable legal framework for investment. Legal amendments, particularly those that require great fanfare, are clearly a task for the SPA, and the more extraordinary the session, the better to convey seriousness of purpose.

But there are other possibilities, too. One is that the Cabinet Prime Minister, currently Choi Young Rim, will be replaced. Choi, who has been in the job for a little more than 2 years, has not done anything wrong that we know about, but North Korea is a pass master at sending messages to the outside world through personnel decisions. In other words, there is much that can be learned if Choi, or any of his top lieutenants, are rotated out of top Cabinet posts.

Whatever the reason for today’s SPA session, the results should be worth watching.