What we’ve learned from North Korea’s Party Congress

Watch and learn. EPA/Ramon Abarca

In the run-up to North Korea’s first Party Congress since 1980, the people of Pyongyang hunkered down to prime the capital for exposure to the world’s prying eyes. The global media pounces on any chance to gain footage from inside the North, and for the purposes of the congress, they were given one.

Hundreds of foreign journalists were invited to Pyongyang, and with internet access slowly spreading inside North Korea, they were for once able to stream live video to international audiences. One BBC reporter found himself expelled for “insulting the country’s dignity”, but by North Korean standards, this was a rare opening indeed.

And yet, for all that everyday life in Pyongyang got a fleeting and fascinating moment in the spotlight, the real point of the congress was to lay bare some of the geopolitics that surround the North – and the goals its young leader, Kim Jong-Un, has in his sights.

It’s no secret that North Korea’s economy is flailing, that famine and underdevelopment are still rampant in rural areas, and that there’s a gaping discrepancy between its cities (especially Pyongyang) and the rest of the country. Kim Jong-Un also has had to cement his own position within the elite, and has been at the origin of large political purges over the past few years, executing high-profile politicians such as his own uncle, Chang Song-Thaek.

At the same time, the North has continued developing and testing both missiles and nuclear weapons, and has been heavily sanctioned as a result.

South Koreans cast their eyes North. EPA/Jeon Heon-Kyun

Analysts spent the run-up to the congress guessing what potentially could be announced, with ideas ranging from the replacement of the truce with the South to a call for full-on war, from subtle changes to the North Korean political and economic structures to a more marked move toward capitalism.

But ultimately, the congress did not offer a revelatory change of direction. Instead, it cleared up a great deal of ambiguity about what exactly the North is up to – and on a few key points, observers from beyond the North’s borders can be much more confident that they know what’s going on.

What we know now

For a start, Kim Jong-Un used the congress to unambiguously praise his country’s nuclear programmes and has called them successful. At the same time, he has clearly stated that the North’s nuclear weapons would only be used as a deterrent to protect the country from a first strike. While hardly earth-shattering, this is still a precious nugget of information.

Some wishful thinkers still downplay the importance of North Korea’s nuclear programmes, pointing out that its tests are not always successful and that the country is still working on a reliable delivery system. But given the confidence and clarity in Kim’s statements, it’s hard to credit the idea that the North is irrational and doesn’t understand nuclear deterrence theory. It has a strategy for developing its programme, and a clear rationale for having weapons in the first place.

North Korea should be considered not an aspirant rogue state but a de facto nuclear power. At most, it’s willing to talk about the management of weapons, facilities, and nuclear waste. There is very little chance that the regime will voluntarily abandon its weapons; as far as its survival is concerned, it views backing down, not proliferation, as the irrational and inconsistent option.

The congress should also put to bed idle speculation about the leadership of Kim Jong-Un, who is clearly here to stay. Despite questions about his leadership abilities, he’s now been promoted to party chairman, a post that allows him to checkmate a few more potential rivals – if indeed there were any. Calling the congress was also a strong political and public relations move, part of Kim’s attempt to emulate the charismatic leadership style of his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung.

Looking sharp: Kim Jong-Un. KCNA/EPA

This is a long-running effort to shore up his standing. North Korean myths and history textbooks have already been retrofitted to inscribe Kim Jong-Un as the supreme leader. At this point, he is unquestionably in control, even if he got the job by default.

But even with a steady hand on the tiller, it’s clear that North Korea is changing. Kim has now announced a new economic five-year plan, which outlines a framework to re-organise the country between now and 2020. The North will already continue some of the changes it’s been making over the past few years – such as improved technology and the spreading use of mobile phones, or the development of taxi services in Pyongyang – which have often been overlooked by the rest of the world.

North Korea has also modified its laws to facilitate foreign investments, resulting in a number of joint ventures with foreign companies, and the economy is still being slowly but steadily developed via the creation of Special Economic Zones. More North Korean workers are taking on jobs in Qatar, Poland and parts of Siberia and sending a large chunk of their wages home. Revenue has been generated by construction projects abroad, such as the new Panorama Museum built by North Korea’s Mansudae Arts Studio as part of the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia.

Parallel lines

All in all, the congress was not the game-changer some observers were looking for. Most of the policies outlined were in fact put in place a while ago, and are just a continuation of the North’s momentum.

Kim Jong-Un’s so-called Byungjin (“parallel”) approach of pursuing nuclear weapons and economic development simultaneously is still at work, and the international community knows what it’s dealing with. Sanctions have not managed to curb nuclear weapons development while the North Korean economy has also appeared to stabilise and grow very slowly.

But the North has few channels through to which communicate openly with the outside world, and by running a party congress, a dusty, clunky old communist tool, Kim Jong-Un and the North Korean elite have with one stroke managed to capture the world’s attention and communicate with its people on security and economic issues.

The world has a choice to make. It can engage the North to help it grow while hoping for internal opening and change, or it can continue to alienate and sanction in hopes of provoking a change of regime. And with upcoming presidential elections taking place this year in the US and next year in South Korea, a new set of world leaders will have to decide where they stand.