The 7th Party Congress in North Korea: A Return to a New Normal

The single most remarkable thing about the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) is that it took place. After a 36-year hiatus, it was, without doubt, a noteworthy event, but the truly big news we were waiting for—such as an announcement of a drastically new economic policy or a switch to collective leadership—was missing. There wasn’t even a major purge. Looking back at my November 2015 preview of the Congress, of the two options presented for how the Congress would turn out, Option 1: a “return to a new normal,” came closest to reality.[1]

I happened to be in North Korea for a few days until May 2 and thus had a chance to see how the country was gearing up for the event. Any effects of UN Security Council Resolution 2270 issued in early March 2016 were not visible; on the contrary, during the week before the Congress, I experienced the most stable supply of electricity since my first visit in 1991. There was not a single blackout and there was running water everywhere, even outside of the capital. The rivers and reservoirs were full, which is crucial for the many hydroelectric power stations in the country. The chimneys of thermal power stations were smoking continuously, indicating the availability of coal. This could be a positive sign of increased production or, more likely, a first consequence of China’s new import restrictions.[2] On the fields of Hwanghaedo, I counted significantly more tractors than oxen, which is also unusual. Large modern red trucks of a Chinese brand filled the streets of Pyongyang and the countryside. This points at brisk business activities, in particular construction, and above all a surprisingly good availability of fuel.

No official foreign delegation participated in the Party Congress. Foreign press has highlighted this as an important difference from the 6th Party Congress, but we should consider how much sense such a comparison makes. 1980 was not just 36 years ago; it was a time when Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China were still in their early infancy, when Mikhail Gorbachev was still five years and three predecessors away from becoming the Soviet leader, when South Korea was still a military dictatorship that had just bloodily suppressed the Kwangju Uprising, when the socialist camp still appeared to be rock solid and Germany was still divided. In North Korea, there had been no Arduous March, no nuclear weapons program, no space program, no succession of the top leadership, no monetization, no marketization, no inter-Korean summit, no special economic zones, not even a joint venture law. The term “apples and oranges” could hardly be more fitting.

The absence of the Chinese at this year’s Congress was, nevertheless, noteworthy. However, after reading the full text of Kim Jong Un’s speech on May 8, it seems that they would not have enjoyed the show. Consider the following passage in Kim Jong Un’s speech: “Despite the filthy wind of bourgeois liberty and ‘reform’ and ‘openness’ blowing in our neighborhood, we let the spirit of songun [military-first] rifles fly and advanced according to the path of socialism that we had chosen.”[3] It is hard not to understand this as giving the bird to Beijing in the most undisguised way I have seen in official North Korean media for a long time.

Regrettably, I could not find any hint of this statement or other remarkable details in foreign press reporting. This leads me to the disappointing suspicion that few if any Western journalists bothered to read the full 14,000-word speech. The English translation, with its 2,000 words, is just a very superficial summary.

Aside from the fact that many results of the Congress will not surface for weeks or months, a number of issues are worth mentioning. Few are encouraging.

“Comrade, have you fulfilled today’s battle plan?” (Photo: Ruediger Frank)
“Comrade, have you fulfilled today’s battle plan?” (Photo: Ruediger Frank)

First, the Congress started in a stunningly old-fashioned way. As Stephan Haggard accurately notes, the very idea of holding a 70-day battle right before the Congress was an early indicator of the neo-orthodox and socialist-conservative approach that would dominate the event. So-called speed battles (속도전) have been standard components of North Korea’s political economy from the very first days of its existence.[4] The state has decided to continue relying on ideological motivation and mass rallies, on keeping individuals busy, and on attempting to perpetuate the spirit of revolution and a state of emergency, rather than laying more emphasis on decentralized, material incentives.

The secretive nature of the preparation, too, is a reminder of old patterns. Classical socialist societies were typically obsessed with secrecy, even concerning minor details. When I arrived in Pyongyang on April 26, no one I talked to knew when the Congress would start, how long it would last or what to expect. Almost everyone was practicing for the torch march or other mass ceremonies, streets were blocked for rehearsals and fireworks were prepared at Juche Tower, but it was not clear when the events would take place. There wasn’t even an official confirmation that the venue would be the April 25 House of Culture, though this became obvious a few days later as it was covered with white cloth, party symbols shining through.

The April 25 House of Culture getting readied to serve as the venue for the 7th Party Congress. (Photo: Ruediger Frank)
The April 25 House of Culture getting readied to serve as the venue for the 7th Party Congress. (Photo: Ruediger Frank)

The announcement of a Five Year Plan, too, points to an old-school neo-orthodox socialist direction. We still must see more detail to pass judgment, of course.[5] Realistically, we will likely have to wait until this autumn or next spring to understand whether the plan will be implemented in the classical socialist-bureaucratic way of excessive micromanagement, or whether it will be more of a strategic and indicative nature. Strengthening the impression that this Congress signals a “return to a new normal,” Kim Jong Un mentioned the next (8th) Party Congress, implying that it would take place around the end of the Five Year Plan—i.e., in 2020.

The creation of the post of Chairman of the WPK also was not a hopeful sign for those who were hoping that the Congress would serve as a milestone towards a reformed North Korea. It confirmed the one-person leadership of Kim Jong Un, rather than broadening the power base at the top level. One could argue that the appointment of less than a handful of additional individuals to the Presidium of the Politburo carries the seeds for a more collective type of leadership, but this is a long shot. Rather, it looks like the correction of a measure that had been pushed through too hastily in April 2012, when the party conference bestowed upon Kim Jong Un the newly created title of First Secretary. The position of Chairman does not change Kim Jong Un’s status as the top man of the party in the slightest way, suggesting that the new title is just a cosmetic correction of something that had been done in a hurry immediately after Kim Jong Il’s unexpected passing.[6]

A minor development of the Congress was the inclusion of Kim Yo Jong, said to be the leader’s sister, as a member of the Central Committee. She continues making her way through the ranks of power, like Kim Jong Il’s sister before her. It will be interesting to see whom she eventually marries, considering the 2013 purge of Kim Kyong Hui’s hapless husband Jang Song Thaek. Speaking of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, the absence of any major purge at the Congress should also be noted, though this was not very surprising given the clean sweep that had already been underway for years.[7]

Should we therefore conclude that the Party Congress achieved nothing except a normalization of the Party-based governance structure, the confirmation of Kim Jong Un as the undisputed top leader, and the announcement of a Five Year Plan for economic development? It is tempting to do so, but given the scarcity of information on North Korea, I suggest having a closer look at the complete version of Kim Jong Un’s speech on May 8, 2016. My focus is mainly on the passages related to the economy. Admittedly, they read like a laundry list of the usual suspects, but there are a few noteworthy details.

The bad news is that Kim Jong Un started by dismissing all ideas about reform,[8] but there are still a few positive signals. Kim Jong Un refrained from following the typical socialist fallacy of promoting producer goods over consumer goods. Rather, he emphasized the need for a balanced development of the sectors of the national economy. In fact, he even sounded slightly critical of past economic policies when he stressed that past investments, which were mainly in the economy’s foundations, need to translate into actual improvements of the people’s lives. Developmental economists will feel reminded of the debate between supporters of balanced and unbalanced growth in the 1960s. Once again, we see that many of North Korea’s problems are far from unique.

The three fields Kim Jong Un identified as being of key importance suggest that he and his advisors have a fairly good understanding of the country’s actual economic problems: lack of energy, lack of food and lack of consumer goods. The strategies he emphasized for solving these issues were, however, not revolutionary. Rather than focusing on the comparative advantages of his country as a potential producer of manufactured goods and processed raw materials for export, which would generate the necessary funds for the import of food, he said explicitly: “We must realize self-sufficiency in food.”

He did not, however, neglect foreign trade altogether. According to his speech, the country places particularly high hopes on the export of graphite, magnesite, silica and rare earths. The latter carries an ambitious undertone if we consider that the latest UN imposed sanctions explicitly ban the import of rare earth minerals from North Korea.

Regarding the energy shortage, which he correctly identified as the central issue for the development of the national economy, Kim Jong Un mentioned a major new power station at Tanchon and the need to build new nuclear power plants. But he also suggested a decentralized solution through the construction of a large number of small- and medium-sized power stations across out of the country. This idea is not new, but it appears realistic given that the weak national power grid could easily be overstressed by input from large power stations. In fact, the reduction of transmission losses was explicitly mentioned in Kim’s speech.[9]

What is remarkable regarding the energy issue is the acknowledgement that the dependency on fuel imports is a strategic disadvantage, and that domestic substitutes have to be found. Adding to speculations about domestic oil reserves, Kim Jong Un remarked that “…we must actively develop key natural resources including crude oil [원유].” Unless that is just wishful thinking, the fact that crude oil production has been mentioned on such an important occasion indicates that North Korea might indeed have found a possible solution to what so far constitutes one of the most crucial bottlenecks in the economy’s supply chain.

Concerning food production, a further liberalization of agriculture was not announced. It seems that for the time being, the reduction in the size of work teams and the increase of the share of their harvest that farmers are allowed to keep and sell on the markets is deemed to provide enough incentives.

Reflecting the World Food Programme’s concerns that North Koreans generally have enough carbohydrates but lack adequate supply of fat and protein, Kim Jong Un stressed the need to dramatically expand animal husbandry. In fact, in addition to collectively owned animals, he explicitly mentioned the need to increase “private livestock” (개인축산) all over the country.

In a similar tone, Kim called upon enterprises to show initiative and creativity (주동, 창발) to normalize their production. He demanded that the state provide the necessary conditions for enterprises to use the management rights (경영권) they were granted to the fullest extent. This could be a very meaningful passage, but we should refrain from jumping to overly optimistic conclusions without more detail on these management rights.

Against the background of the intensified international sanctions, it is noteworthy that Kim Jong Un said: “We will need to expand and develop foreign economic relations.” Joint ventures are supposed to facilitate the import of advanced technology, and through special economic zones, North Korea wants to actively lobby for investments from abroad. Again, this is an ambition that needs a reality check given the tightened sanctions regime.

The final economic remarks in Kim Jong Un’s speech refer to more general economic policy issues. In particular, he criticized expediency, formalism and defeatism, and he demanded “realistic” (현실성있게) plans for economic development. He strongly reconfirmed the Cabinet’s responsibility as the “headquarters of the economy” (경제사령부), a role reflected later in the Congress in the election of Prime Minister Pak Pong Ju to the Presidium of the Politburo.

A frequent misconception about the Party Congress deserves mention: foreign media interpreted it as a Party victory over the military in an alleged power struggle.[10] The idea of a power struggle between “Party” and “military” makes very little sense, but like the absurd hoax that a Choco Pie costs US$10 on a North Korean market or that Jang Song Thaek was ripped apart by 200 hungry dogs, it is dying hard. It takes a poor understanding of North Korea’s power structure to ignore the fact that families matter, not institutions, and that the same families place their members in all of the centers of power in the country, including the Party and the military. Besides, the Party has always suffused the military; for visual proof of this relationship, look at the number of military uniforms in the following photo or read the opening speech where Kim Jong Un mentioned 719 service men as regular participants. Every military unit is also a Party cell, and every leading military officer is a Party member.

7th Party Congress participants pose for a commemorative photo in May 2016. (Photo: KCNA)
7th Party Congress participants pose for a commemorative photo in May 2016. (Photo: KCNA)


However hard we search for details in Kim Jong Un’s speeches, the Party Congress did not initiate a new age of reform and opening. On the contrary, it explicitly rejected such a prospect in the leader’s rude words towards the Chinese, indicating a historical low point in the bilateral relationship.

A thin ray of hope is offered by the fact that solid Party rule formed the foundation for the successful changes in China and Vietnam, while the Party’s disintegration was one reason for the Soviet Union’s collapse. The explicit mentioning of the upcoming 8th Party Congress points into the direction of a further normalization. And although there was no big breakthrough, Kim Jong Un did not undo the changes of the past; he even talked about private economic activities and about flexibility and decentralized responsibility. He also repeated his four-year-old promise to improve people’s lives. It will be seen whether the related expectations of his people were fulfilled or disappointed by the overall rather orthodox and conservative tone of the 7th Party Congress. The new leader had made big promises when he took power in 2011; it is now time to deliver. At the Congress, Kim Jong Un has praised the Party at length for its closeness to the masses and its spirit of devoting everything to the people. This description now, once again, must stand the test of reality.


[1] The Congress was announced on October 30, 2015, and was held for five days, from May 6 until May 10, 2016. The official number of participants, as reported by Kim Jong Un in his opening speech, was 3,467 plus 1,545 observers. The over 100 Western journalists who were allowed into the country were, not surprisingly, barred from the actual event. The 7th Congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea was an internal affair.

[2] If the Chinese don’t buy the coal, more is left for domestic consumption.

[3] Author translation.

[4] The so-called mass line has even found its way into the constitution (Article 13). On May 12, state media that North Koreans would endure speed battles of 700 or 7,000 days if necessary.

[5] Both Stalin’s Soviet Union and Park Chung Hee’s South Korea had such plans, for instance. But while the former suffocated individual economic activity and led his country into economic and political bankruptcy, the latter pooled the limited resources of an underdeveloped country and opened the way to its current economic dynamism and prosperity, albeit at a high political and social price.

[6] Another mysterious cosmetic adjustment: In the autumn of 2012, the twin statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansudae Hill were redone for no obvious reason. The only visible change was that Kim Jong Il is now wearing a parka rather than a Western coat.

[7] An entertaining detail was the re-emergence of Ri Yong Gil, which embarrassed the South Koreans who had reported him to be dead in February 2016. He became an alternate member of the Politburo and a member of the Central Military Commission.

[8] Looking back at the period since 1980, he exhibited considerable pride in his country’s ability to foil the “foolish” hope of the imperialists for a “change of direction” and “collapse of system.” This is followed by the already mentioned passage on the “filthy wind of bourgeois liberty” in China.

[9] It is in the eye of the beholder whether the emphasis on alternative sources of energy—wind, hydro, biomass and solar power—is the result of a sustainable and environmentalist approach or just born of necessity. In any case, the leader mentioned the elimination of pollution when, a few sentences later, he discussed the necessary modernization of the chemical industry.

[10] I do not share this view but nevertheless noticed with some amusement that the venue of the conference was the April 25 House of Culture. April 25 is the official day of the North Korean army’s foundation. A Pyongyangologist could draw all kinds of conclusions from this: that the military was the truly dominant force as the symbolic host of the event; or conversely, that the Party showed its dominance by holding its key event on the opponent’s territory, just as the German Reich was founded in Versailles in 1871. Regardless of how you want to interpret this detail, it seems to have escaped the attention of most observers. Still, this omission might be more embarrassing than crucial.

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