North Korea has been anticipating the Seventh Workers Party of Korea Congress for months now. Following the announcement of the Congress the energy of North Korea’s media organisations was unleashed rhetorically. All manner of bureaucracies have been harnessed to underpin the congress’s importance. There was even a"70 Day Campaign of Loyalty,“ a campaign similar to past Chinese efforts such as Dazhai Speed under Mao or Soviet Stakhanovism.
Finally the date of the congress has been unveiled as May 6. So what can we expect from it? While we cannot know for sure, North Korea’s capacity to surprise should never be underestimated.
In recent months, Pyongyang has constantly reminded the rest of the world of its nuclear and ballistic ambitions and capabilities, and has reacted with its trademark fury to the world’s denunciations and sanctions. But none of these things help us get a handle on what the latest congress is meant to achieve, or what surprises it might have in store.
As is often the case when it comes to understanding North Korea, perhaps a look backwards might help.
The last party congress was held in October 1980, and the best document of what it meant is then-Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung’s report to the Sixth Congress of the Workers Party of Korea on the Work of the Central Committee.
This report revolves around the themes of aspiration and development, cast in familiar North Korean language: "scientificisation”, “three revolutions”, “signal progress”. And the projects it proposed some 36 years ago, among them the development of hydroelectric power, are still still being pursued three and a half decades later
Likewise, the report asserts that “Developing the fisheries and increasing the output of sea foods is an important way of improving the life of the people” – yet another economic plank that Pyongyang is still trying to nail down. The Sixth Congress also made a great show of the imagery of natural abundance, one of the most ancient North Korean preoccupations: “Our country is mountainous and our forests have plenty of vegetation of economic value.”
So in some ways, Kim Il-Sung’s 1980 report suggests a stagnancy in North Korean policy. Pyongyang’s developmental policy remains an echo chamber, an endless cycle of disappointment and dead ends.
But on other matters, the report reads like something from a parallel universe.
Kim Il-Sung, it seems, had a very different vision for North Korea’s future than his grandson does today. In the report, he lays out the now semi-forgotten dream of creating a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo (DCRK), a one state two systems model in which the Korean Peninsula would be unified, but its differing political and economic systems preserved through a radical federalism. He calls it a reflection of “the common political aspirations of north and south for democracy” and that it should “pursue a policy which agrees with the fundamental interests and demands of the entire Korean people”.
These aspirations seem remarkably tame, even open-minded, compared to the North’s extravagant belligerence since the start of the 21st century. Kim Jong-Un’s attitude to the government in Seoul makes unification unlikely in the extreme, even as he still makes a big rhetorical point of backing it.
Even more bizarre by contrast is Kim Il-Sung’s commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement, a movement led by India, Indonesia, Egypt, Yugoslavia and Ghana) which sought to plot a middle way for nations not affiliated to either side in the Cold War. The North has long expressed its desire for a multi-polar world of independent nations. In 1980, that explicitly meant breaking up the Cold War’s geopolitical blocs: “Our Party holds that the aggressive imperialist military blocs and all others must be dissolved”.
And most surprising of all, that came with an unambiguous commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement’s principle of “nuclear-free zones”: “We maintain that the testing, manufacture, stockpiles and use of nuclear weapons must be prohibited throughout the world, all of them destroyed completely.”
Today, North Korea seems willing to squander geopolitical capital and forgo economic security to fulfil its nuclear ambitions. It’s a long journey from October 1980 to January 2016, when Pyongyang announced its first H-Bomb test. To some extent, this transformation has simply followed the arc of history: the world order has fundamentally shifted in the intervening 36 years, and much of the geopolitical framework which supported Pyongyang at the time of the Sixth Party Congress has disappeared.
Still the fact that North Korea ever joined in the call to eradicate nuclear weapons is still extraordinary, and it must not be forgotten. As the world prepares for a rare public exposition of North Korea’s agenda, everyone watching should remember that confusing though it is, the North is not a true “hermit kingdom”, hatching its plans for the future outside of political reality.
Just what’s in store this year remains to be seen, but we should prepare to be surprised.