What is it?
On May 6, 2016, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) will hold the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea. This is the first such meeting since 1980, and it comes in the 70th year of the Workers’ Party. Theoretically, the Congress is the highest decision making body and is supposed to be convened every four years. In practice, previous congresses have been used to announce policy decisions, spread propaganda, and reaffirm the ruling dynasty of the Kim family. The congress is expected to last four or five days, with a variety of events happening throughout.
The former leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, held no congresses during his rule, although in 2010 a conference was held to announce Kim Jong-un as his successor. In 2012 another Conference of the Party was held to promote Kim Jong-un to the position of First Secretary of the Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. It is widely assumed that Kim Jong-un will use this Congress, four years after he took power, to promote himself to General Secretary of the Workers’ Party. By doing so, he proclaims this to be “his era” and consolidates his position as the supreme ruler of the Workers’ Party and thus, the country.
In order to assure his consolidation of power, Kim Jong-un has been carefully selecting officials to positions of importance. This is an important factor in Kim’s bid to consolidate power, as one of the other primary functions of the Congress is to elect the members of the Central Committee, which is the party’s leading authority. Kim likely feels he has the right people lined up to fill the Central Committee and return military power to the Workers’ Party.
It is also certainly not a coincidence that the Congress is being convened in a year when the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are having important elections. After thumbing its collective nose at the international sanctions by conducting a nuclear test and another satellite launch, holding the Congress now sends a clear message to these countries on North Korean support among its leadership for violating the sanctions.
What to Expect?
Though never wise to guarantee what will come out of North Korean propaganda exercises, there are a couple of distinct outcomes to expect from this event. The first is the aforementioned promotion of Kim Jong-un to the position of General Secretary. Second will be Kim’s promotion of the success of his byungjin policy. This is a double-pronged policy that places equal importance on North Korea achieving nuclear-power status and on the development of the domestic economy. Kim’s speech on the success of the byungjin will likely come on the first day, with other policy directives to come on the following days from Committee members.
Kim will point to the recent round of nuclear tests and rocket launches to fulfill the first half of the byungjin line. Although there have been some successes, including a successful submarine-launched ballistic missile, there were also three failed launches of medium-range inter-continental ballistic missiles. Those failures were of course not reported in the North Korean domestic press. There is some speculation that the North will have some other sort of launch or nuclear test to mark the Congress, but at present it remains speculation.
For the second half of the byungjin policy, results have been a little less concrete. There is some evidence of new construction in the capital city of Pyongyang, and budget analysis shows that more of the country’s economic output is being derived from non-centralized sources. Kim will be able to point to the continued ability of the country to feed itself and the slightly improved living conditions as measures of success. It will be interesting to see how much emphasis he places on economic development, as recent defector reporting shows the importance that private enterprise and money has come to play in the lives of many North Korean people.
Although previous congresses have included foreign delegations, there is no indication that any will be invited to observe this year’s congress. However, a large body of foreign reporters has been allowed in to report on proceedings, and what comes out will be of great interest to not only North Korea watchers, but anyone with an interest in Northeast Asian affairs. We can be certain that Kim Jong-un will use this to cement his position as “supreme leader,” and the efforts that have gone into the preparations for this show the importance he has placed on the congress.