What to expect at the 7th Party Congress

The 7th Party Congress will commence tomorrow. The Party Congress is North Korea’s premier political institution, and as such most analysts predict that Kim Jong Un will use the event to shore up his leadership and expand his loyalty base. There is a substantial possibility that Kim Jong Un will use the Party Congress to officially promulgate the beginning of his reign. 

We’re going to forecast some of the Party Congress focal points and  how the convention will influence the regime’s structure going forward. To learn more, we recently brought in Dr. Jeon Hyeon Jun, Director of the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Institute. 

1. Thanks for joining us. Could you please tell us who will be attending the Party Congress and explain its main function?

First of all, approximately 3,000 representatives will be sent to the congress. At the last Party Congress in 1980, 3,200 representatives were chosen from a pool of 3.2 million total party members. We predict that this year’s congress will have a similar attendance. These party members can be divided into elected and local members. The local representatives are composed of cadres from committees at various levels in the Party hierarchy. Affiliated organizations of the Central Committee include the Organization and Guidance Department [OGD], Propaganda and Agitation Department, Finance and Accounting Department, No. 39 Department, United Front Department, etc. 

The secretary, director, and vice-director from each department will attend the convention, and from the local party hierarchy, the provincial Party Secretary, as well as the director and vice -director, from various local agencies, such as the OGD and the Propaganda and Agitation Department, will also attend.       

Below that, the responsible secretaries and directors of agencies at the municipal and county level will also attend. Cadres from the Party Committee responsible for top level enterprises and munitions factories will likely attend. Also, in order to emphasize the “working class” contingent of the Party, some rank and file members of the Party will be given the right to attend. These few are nominated by committees in the upper echelons of the party structure. The nominations are based on how long the person has been in a specific post and their work ethic and attitude. 

From the military, representatives from the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces will attend, as will top cadres from the Ministry of People’s Security and the State Security Department. Instead of receiving a nomination, Kim Jong Un is set to be inducted as President of the Congress. He has already been named top leader at various meetings, including the fathering of Pyongyang City representatives of the Workers’ Party of Korea and armed forces representatives of the Workers’ Party of Korea meeting.     

These Party conferences are the top institutions of the Party organization, and serve a number of functions, including unifying the tasks of the Central Committee, and adopting, modifying, and supplementing party doctrines and rules. The central problems underlying Party strategy, policy, and tactics are discussed and decisions are made determining the Party’s future course. Another important function is to induct the General Secretary of the Workers’ Party. This position is determined by a vote by the Central Committee and Central Auditing Commission.    

2. It has been 36 years since the last Party Congress. Why do you think it has taken so long to re-convene? 

According to the original rules, Party Congresses are supposed to be held every five years. However, since the first Party Congress in August of 1946, they have been convened at irregular intervals. So there have only been six in total from the start until 2015. The most recent Congress was held on October 10, 1980. At that 6th party Congress, Kim Jong Il was named successor to the throne and a 10 point program for the construction of socialism was put forward.  

The reason that a Party Congress has not been held since that time is because of the country’s economic problems. After the 6th Party Congress, Kim Il Sung ordered that no further congresses should be held until the people were all provided with meat stew, tile-roofed homes, and silk clothes. In other words, he prohibited the Party Congress from convening during times of economic stagnation. So, in 2010 and 2012, one day Party Representatives’ Conferences were held. The rule to hold these every four years was revised at the 2010 conference, and now they can be held at any time.  

3. What is the most important thing to pay attention to at this year’s Party Congress?

We can divide the most important things into three categories: organization, personnel, and policy. First, in terms of organization, it will be interesting to see if the Party General Secretary role is revived or not. At the April 4, 2012 4th Party Representatives’ Conference, Kim Jong Un named his father, Kim Jong Il, Eternal General Secretary, and named himself First Secretary. So, people are interested to see whether or not he will raise himself to the General Secretary role. I don’t think we’ll be seeing any major organizational shifts aside from those already mentioned here.     

The next topic of some importance is personnel. The top power structure of the Party is the Political Bureau of the Central Committee, so seeing what the roster will look like will also be of interest. So far the members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo include Kim Jong Un, Kim Yong Nam, and Hwang Pyong So. But Kim Yong Nam is too old at 88 years old. So perhaps Pak Pong Ju, the current Cabinet prime minister, will take his place. There are a lot of seats to fill. Kim Yang Gon was director of the United Front Department, but he died in an automobile accident. There is also talk that as the previous army chief of staff, Ri Yong Gil, has been purged, so his seat will also need to be filled. Same goes for the Secretariat position. All in all, there are probably 40 or 50 big posts to fill at the elite level. 
Last, it is important to look at policy. Kim Jong Un’s “monolithic leadership” will be proclaimed. On the domestic front, “Byungjin policy” will be re-emphasized, underscoring simultaneous nuclear and economic development. There is no ruling out that certain dramatic economic reforms such as privatized farming might be clarified. In terms of foreign policy, it looks as though North Korea will announce itself as a nuclear power and demand unconditional and peaceful reconciliation with the US. 

There is also a chance that a summit meeting with South Korea will be suggested. I suspect that a new method for achieving unification might also come out of the Party Congress. That’s because so much time has passed and the surrounding countries have changed so significantly that North Korea might remorsefully come to terms with the prospect that a federal style of unification is no longer realistic.   

4. If we compare this Party Congress with the last one that occurred, the international and domestic atmosphere is quite different, isn’t it? We’ve heard that this Congress might be smaller in scale compared to the 6th Congress. Your thoughts?   

The strongest ever international sanctions are now being levied on North Korea right now, making it difficult for high level personnel out of Moscow or Beijing to visit North Korea. Particularly, because China is actively participating in this round of sanctions, the normally friendly relations between NK and China have deteriorated, making it unlikely that high level bureaucrats will visit. There is the chance that Xi Jinping will make a shocking decision by sending someone like Premier Li Keqiang, but it North Korea conducts a fifth nuclear missile test, that will become very unlikely indeed.   

–We haven’t seen any reports out of North Korea that Pyongyang has invited any international personnel for the Party Congress. Do you think there is a chance this will be a purely domestic event?

That might be the case. No international delegations are coming to extend their congratulations. It looks like a very domestic oriented event, with attention being paid primarily to the concentration of power in Kim Jong Un. This Party Congress is going to be filled from start to finish with large scale events that congratulate Kim Jong Un. 

5. There is a high probability that the start of the Party Congress will coincide with a 5th nuclear test. We might venture a guess that Kim Jong Un is using the nuclear victories to make up for the fact that he has had very little economic achievement. You think that’s fair to say? 

Yes, I think there is a high chance that might happen. I think the likelihood of a 5th nuclear test depends on what sort of results came out of Ri Su Yong’s visit to the UN. But Secretary of State John Kerry declared he had no intention of meeting with Ri Su Yong. For the most part, nuclear weapon tests and long range missile launches are a form of provocation that happens when North Korean delegations fail to make any progress with America or the UN. 

Of course, the China variable also matters, but I don’t think that relations there will get much better. Because of their newfound independence, North Korea is really feeling exposed in terms of security. And so the nuclear tests help to raise Kim Jong Un’s popularity. That’s why it is extremely likely a 5th test will happen. Foreign Secretary Ri Su Yong gave a speech at the Sustainable Development High Summit at the UN’s headquarters in New York on April 21. In the speech, he protested against the UN sanctions and promised to answer nuclear aggression with nuclear resolve. Because of this, North Korean experts such as the US media outlet and research institute 38 North have forecasted a high likelihood for a 5th test.     

6. This is Kim Jong Un’s first Party Congress. That makes it probable that he will be stressing his own accomplishments. What do you think he is likely to emphasize? 

First, on the political front, he is likely to stress the fact that he improved the security of the Party and supreme leadership by eradicating anti-party sects such as Jang Song Thaek, making the country safe for the continuous fulfillment of Juche socialist principles.  

On the economic level, there will be propaganda that through the “Byungjin” model, groundbreaking success was had in food, construction, electricity, and coal. He will also likely engage in self-praise over the 70 Day Battle, which the regime contends has contributed to developing multiple facets of the socialist regime. In terms of the military, he will stress North Korea’s ability to repel an American attack through the miniaturization of nuclear weapons and the long distance missiles that can reach the American mainland. 

7. During his New Year’s Address this year, Kim Jong Un announced plans to build an economic powerhouse. What types of economic principles is he likely to stress this time around? 

From the time that Kim Jong Un first appeared, he placed the resident’s food problem as his top priority. He said he wants to end the time when residents have to tighten their belts. In actuality, the country has seen slight growth since 2012. Right now, even though the strongest ever sanctions are in place, we have yet to see food prices skyrocket. We can say that this is, at least to some extent, a result of the “June 28 Measures,” which introduced the component price management system and provided incentives for farms and factories. Accordingly, he might implement family production or even allow private farming. Additionally, a 10 point agenda will be forwarded as part of the people’s economic development 5 year plan, pledging to make North Korea a powerful construction nation with the diligent support of the people.        

8. In terms of foreign affairs such as unification methodology, what kind of message should we expect? 

I think we see a focus on peace and amity, with emphasis on solving the nuclear standoff through the proposal of a US-NK peace agreement. In order to get the Americans to the bargaining table, they might say something like, “America is no longer our 100 year enemy.” Of course, there will also be lots of criticism pointed at the US as well. But there won’t be strategic rhetoric about changing the nature of the nearby nations, etc. at this Party Congress.   

They’ll likely say that the door to conversation with South Korea is always open. They might even suggest having a summit meeting between the two sides. Perhaps they’ll suggest a new style of unification, maybe an alternative to federal unification. However, I doubt these overtures will be perceived as serious if the North conducts a 5th nuclear test.     

9. What kind of influence will this Party Congress have on the regime? 

The Party Congress will have a large influence on a number of departments. The very reason for a Party Congress is to change the status quo. So, we will see Kim Jong Un come into absolute power and build long term structures to maintain it. As the sanctions set in, we will likely see restrictions on the ideological front and on the physical front. There will be a harsh crackdown on information from the outside world, with a particular emphasis on “Hallyu,” or the Korean Wave. And punishments on defectors will be amped up as well. To sum it up succinctly, the Party Congress will help facilitate the goal of strengthening the closed nature of the regime.      
To solve the problem of the people’s livelihood, there will probably be reforms in economic areas. The freedom of activity for farms or companies will probably be expanded and the activity and product range of the jangmadang marketplace will also likely be extended to some degree. 

10. Residents were continually mobilized for difficult labor projects to support the regime’s so-called “70-Day Battle.” That being the case, how do you think residents perceive the Party Congress? 

I think there are two possible reactions. There are those who are loyal to the Kim family. They will probably expect that the Party Congress will be used to help improve the resident’s standard of living. However, on the other side, there will also be cynics who think that the Party Congress is an exercise in futility. I think that if the economy doesn’t improve after this Party Congress, people might lose faith in Kim Jong Un’s abilities as a leader. Either way, it is important to see whether the Party Congress has the effect of bringing the people together behind him and building his loyalty base or not.  

-So through the Party Congress, they will try to achieve some increased domestic solidarity? 

Yes, of course. The goal of the Party Congress is a political one. The goal is to build ideological and systemic foundations for Kim Jong Un’s continual domination of the political hierarchy. That’s why it is fair to expect the continuation of fairly strict control over society in the period after the congress. However, it is apparent even to Kim Jong Un that using the stick exclusively is ineffective, so he is probably going to use carrots too. Perhaps he will liberate the markets a bit more, make the residents’ lives a bit more comfortable, or try to make the atmosphere of the whole country a bit brighter. By using both the carrot and the stick, Kim Jong Un aims to use the Party Congress to shore up his power base.   

On the international front, it is extremely unlikely that North Korea will surrender its nuclear weapons. So the sanctions will probably get tougher and tougher and have deleterious effects on ordinary residents. Kim Jong Un has no real alternative other than to end the closed nature of the regime, take a more forward-looking approach to the nuclear problem, and improve relations with critical neighbors, such as South Korea. At the end of the day, avoiding a tragic outcome is the duty of a nation’s leader. 
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