The Seventh Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea and the Kim Jong-un Regime
Kwansei Gakuin University
The Kim Jong-un regime came into being in April 2012 following the sudden demise of General Secretary Kim Jong-il in December 2011, but remained fluid on the personnel front, with the purge of Jang Song-thaek—Kim's uncle, who was also viewed as Kim's guardian—leading many to question the stability of the regime. These doubts were subsequently underlined by frequent announcements of personnel changes in the army and elsewhere, coming amidst reports from South Korea of numerous North Korean military purges.
In that sense, the Seventh Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK)—which took place in May 2016 after a 36 year hiatus—could be said to have unveiled North Korea's real plans for the Kim Jong-un regime. At the Congress, Kim was given the new title of party chairman, and the WPK was realigned as Kim's own party. Then, at the subsequent Supreme People's Assembly, the National Defense Commission, which was emblematic of military-first politics during Kim Jong-il's rule, was turned into the State Affairs Commission and Kim named the new Commission Chairman, cementing his position at the head of the administration. The Kim Jong-il years and the first four years of Kim Jong-un's own regime were positioned as a time of crisis management, with the first Congress in 36 years marking the end of that era and signaling North Korea's return to normalcy. When Kim appeared at the Congress in a suit, some suggested that he was copying his grandfather and North Korea's first Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung, which may have been indicative of North Korea's intention to position Kim as the head of a newly normalized nation. The Seventh Congress will probably be remembered as the Congress that put the final touches to that regime schema.
Significance of the first Congress in 36 years
As noted above, the military-first politics of the Kim Jong-il years were a reflection of a regime engaged in crisis management at a time when North Korea's very survival was under threat. The Sixth Congress in 1980, 36 years ago, was when Kim Jong-il made his official debut as the successor to North Korea's first Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung. However, with the Cold War beginning to draw to a close in the late 1980s, North Korea came face to face with the difficulty of sustaining its regime. In particular, the Tiananmen Square incident in China, when many protestors gathered in the square were killed by the People's Liberation Army, and the civil uprising in Romania, which resulted in the overthrow and execution of leader Nicolae Ceausescu, impressed upon Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il that in the final stages of political change, having a monopoly on means of physical coercion gave the military the power to determine the direction of politics.
The process of handing on Kim Il-sung's party-centered regime to Kim Jong-il was consequently accompanied by a decisive shift to military-centered politics. Kim Jong-il took over his father's positions as Supreme Commander and Chairman of the National Defense Commission to become head of the military, signaling the start of a military-led politics in which the national leader and the military combined to run the administration. Because Kim controlled the military through the WPK's Politburo, described as a party within a party, the appearance that the party continued to direct the military was retained, but in fact the party organization became a mere facade, unable to hold not only a Congress but even a Central Committee meeting. Further, when the end of the Cold War led to South Korea normalizing relations with both the Soviet Union and China, the protection which North Korea had previously enjoyed under its former allies' nuclear umbrellas was thrown into question. From North Korea's perspective, it had suddenly become the only country unilaterally exposed to the US nuclear threat, making it very vulnerable indeed.
Unlikelihood of North Korea surrendering its nuclear weapons program
During the crisis management years—the Kim Jong-il years along with the first four years of Kim Jong-un's rule—the highest priority was placed on boosting North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities to counter the US threat and acquiring the ability to strike back at the US. While this was still the situation that pertained as Kim Jong-il began the process of handing on power to Kim Jong-un as his young successor, Kim Jong-il's aim was not to have his son simply continue with military-first politics but rather to position Kim Jong-un as the supreme leader of a 'normalized' North Korea in which the party ran the country, with the military falling under its control. The Seventh Congress was probably intended to put the final polish on that new schema.
During the Kim Jong-il years and the first four years of the Kim Jong-un regime, North Korea defied strong pressure from the international community to engage in a series of what were effectively trial ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests, and now claims to have acquired that strike capability. North Korea's position seems to be that as it is no longer the only country exposed to the US threat, that crisis is now over. At the Congress, Kim Jong-un presented a unique brand of logic, stating on the one hand that North Korea is a responsible nuclear power and will not make preemptive use of nuclear weapons, while also noting in the Central Committee Summary Decision that North Korea would be made to shine as the East's major nuclear power. Subsequently too, North Korea has continued to conduct Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile tests, claiming to have acquired the capacity to make a comprehensive and realistic strike on the US within the Pacific Theater. While most analysts still doubt North Korea's claims about its nuclear missile capacity, that capacity is certainly improving, and there is no likelihood of North Korea surrendering its nuclear weapons program in the way which the international community is hoping.
Improving the economic situation
However, the US nuclear threat has not been the only concern for North Korea—the country's economic slump was also a significant risk factor. When the socialist bloc collapsed at the end of the Cold War, it also brought an end to the cheaper prices charged between socialist countries, which, coupled with bad weather conditions, threw the North Korean economy into a crisis, to the extent of engendering such serious food shortages that many people reportedly starved to death. The Kim Jong-il regime and the first four years of the Kim Jong-un regime have alleviated the situation to some extent, and the Seventh Congress adopted the socialist mainstay of a Five-Year National Economic Development Plan (2016-2020). At the Congress, Kim emphasized that North Korea would continue to pursue the "Byungjin Line"—the country's policy of pursuing the parallel goals of economic development and a robust nuclear weapons as a prerequisite for the success of the country's missile testing, aiming to make North Korea a major technological power. While emphasizing that further rocket launches would be conducted as part of the country's space development program, Kim also admitted that the fact that North Korea stands on the cutting edge in some areas but lags far behind in others was an issue to be addressed. North Korea is currently subject to economic sanctions pursuant to United Nations resolutions on the country's nuclear and missile testing, but strangely enough, a Bank of Korea analysis suggests that the economy has continued to grow, albeit only slightly, for the past several years. According to many experts, economic conditions have been improving thanks to the regime's policy of reform and opening, but if North Korea wants to achieve a higher rate of growth, it will need foreign capital and technology, which will first mean addressing its external relations.
International community response and Kim Jong-un
Possibly with this in mind, Kim Jong-un took the opportunity of the Congress to propose dialogue with the US and Korea. However, neither Korea nor the US has displayed any interest in dialogue. The US has not only turned its back on dialogue but also imposed sanctions on Kim Jong-un himself over human rights issues. Korea too has rejected dialogue, with President Park Geun-hye sparing no effort to contain North Korea, including visiting Africa to urge African nations to suspend trade with the country. In addition, despite strong opposition from China, the US and South Korea have gone ahead and introduced the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system. While North Korea's resistance is obvious, China and Russia too have not hidden their apprehension at this move. Depending on what happens next, we could potentially see a return to a Cold War-like standoff with Japan, the US and South Korea on the one hand and China, Russia and North Korea on the other. Given the current situation, North Korea is also likely to propose dialogue with Japan. Japan partially lifted its sanctions on North Korea in recognition of North Korea's agreement in Stockholm in 2014 to reopen investigations into the abduction of Japanese citizens, but those investigations did not proceed as Japan had hoped. When North Korea conducted a fourth round of nuclear testing, Japan reinstituted its sanctions, which naturally prompting an angry reaction from North Korea. However, both Japan and North Korea take the position that the Stockholm agreement remains valid, so while further developments with nuclear and missile testing could also change the bilateral relationship around that agreement, Japan will probably have to look for a way to advance the relationship that contributes to resolving the issue.
There is an almost unbridgeable gap between North Korea as it seeks to present the Kim Jong-un regime as a return to normalcy and the international community's call for North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons program. Kim Jong-un described the Seventh Congress as a Congress of victory and prosperity that represented a new turning point in the fight to complete the mighty task of revolution. North Korea certainly stands at a turning point, but the question is perhaps rather whether Kim Jong-Un can secure the return to normalcy that North Korea is seeking, or whether he will instead be forced to return to crisis management.