Highlights of North Korea’s Latest Party Meetings: Setting a New Agenda

(Source: Rodong Sinmun)

North Korea’s announced decision to hold the Eighth Party Congress this coming January transforms the policy atmosphere in Pyongyang, and opens up a range of options for Kim Jong Un as he prepares to deal with the outcome of the upcoming US presidential elections. Everything that happens between now and that Congress will be keyed to laying the groundwork and ensuring the success of that major party event.

Over the past month, the North has reported a dizzying sequence of high-level meetings in Pyongyang: a Central Military Commission (CMC) session followed by an unusual, smaller CMC “closed-door” meeting the same day (July 18); an “emergency Politburo meeting” (July 25); an unusual Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) “Executive Policy Council” meeting (August 5); another Politburo (Political Bureau) meeting (August 13); and a Central Committee (CC) plenum (August 19). Even for Kim Jong Un, who has already convened far more high-level party meetings than his father did in his 17-year rule, five in a month is a lot.

Related to Kim Jong Un’s revival of high-level party meetings, he has opted to hold meetings and delegate decision-making and responsibility to lower levels from the early days of his rule. This has not been just in the party. Kim’s leadership style is also well-reflected in the emphasis on the economy regarding enterprise management and even farm plot responsibility.

In light of the recent flurry of high-level party meetings and the scheduling of the next Congress, the question that arises is what is Kim’s motivation? Why now?

There have been some hints of what Kim has in mind, but not many. For starters, he seems intent on large-scale personnel changes in the party hierarchy in preparation for significant policy developments later this year. A lot of this looks to be rearranging the deck chairs, but there are some indications that more extensive changes have taken place at the level of the Central Committee departments, which are a key part of the process of formulating and refining policy recommendations to Kim.

As part of those preparations, on August 13, the State Affairs Commission issued a decree announcing that after “analyzing and assessing the Cabinet’s capacity for economic organizational work,” it was replacing the current premier—Kim Jae Ryong—with Kim Tok Hun.[1] This turned out to be a velvet glove dismissal, because at the August 13 Politburo meeting, it was announced that Kim Jae Ryong had been appointed as a party vice chairman and head of an unspecified Central Committee department.[2] Based on seating arrangements, he also seems to retain his top rank among the full members of the Politburo.

At the August 5 Executive Policy Council meeting, there was reportedly discussion about creating a new party department.[3] The suggestion was seen as an important development, and planning and further discussion of the new department continued at the Politburo meeting on August 13, although no more than a vague description was provided about its function. State news reported: It would “make [sic] tangible contribution to safeguarding the dignity and interests of the state and people, reliably supporting and guaranteeing the political stability and order of the society and impregnably defending our class position and socialist construction.”[4]

At this point, Kim Jong Un seems to be looking toward far-reaching economic policy initiatives to be announced at the January Party Congress, where, Kim said, a new five-year economic “plan” would be announced. It is likely that Kim already has the outlines for such a plan in mind, but no doubt between now and the Congress there will be a lot of discussion and debate in the party and the Cabinet over the details.

Kim may have thought he had already laid out significant initiatives on economic policy at the last Congress, in June 2016, but events over the past couple of years—including what the August 19 plenum decision described as “seriously delayed” in improving the economy due to “severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges”—no doubt convinced him that the continuous exhortations to the population to endure and work harder were not going to be enough.[5]

For the past five years, the North has not been operating under a five-year “plan,” per se, but rather according to what was termed an economic “strategy.” That word was apparently carefully chosen to give the regime flexibility, not locked into specific numeric goals but rather concentrating on putting in place the structure and foundation for economic plans to follow. If anything, starting with a “strategy” was a reflection of Kim’s more pragmatic approach.

In the interim, there has been evidence that the hoary concept of a “planned economy” has been discussed (debated?) as Kim has introduced reforms that have had the effect of diluting the strict top-down planning approach of the old days.

Expanded Politburo Presidium. At the Politburo meeting on August 13, a new, expanded Presidium was revealed. The newly appointed Cabinet Premier Kim Tok Hun and Ri Pyong Chol, WPK CC vice chairman and vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, both became Presidium members, enlarging that body from three to five members.

For many years, the Presidium had at least one place for a senior military figure—usually the director of the Korean People’s Army General Political Department. After the April 2018 party plenum at which Kim Jong Un announced the new “strategic line” of “everything for the economy,” the military’s chair on the Presidium was vacant. It has now been filled, not by a uniformed military figure, but by Ri Pyong Chol, who at least symbolically and probably functionally represents the regime’s commitment to its nuclear and missile programs. How Kim has decided to reconcile a continued commitment to those programs—certainly at the current level—with the upcoming five-year economic plan, which will have to work out relative commitment of resources to the civilian and national defense sectors, remains to be seen.

Where Is Kim Yo Jong? Despite the South Korean National Intelligence Service assessment that Kim Jong Un has “delegated partial authority” to his sister Kim Yo Jong, her status remains unclear.[6] She was not seen at the last two party meetings, for example. This is the first time she missed Politburo meetings after she was elected as an alternate member of the Political Bureau in April.[7] It is premature to draw conclusions as Political Bureau members and alternate members do sometimes miss party meetings, but it may be worth watching. Moreover, the two-week anti-South Korea campaign that she led in June was suspended by Kim Jong Un, which raises questions about how much of Kim Jong Un’s “authority” has actually been “delegated” to her. She may function as a gatekeeper on some issues, which would give her the sort of influence gatekeepers worldwide enjoy, but that is not the same thing as decision-making authority.

  1. [1]

    Quote translated from: “조선민주주의인민공화국 국무위원회 정령 조선민주주의인민공화국 내각 총리 해임 및 임명에 대하여,” Rodong Sinmun, August 14, 2020.

  2. [2]

    “16th Meeting of Political Bureau of 7th Central Committee of WPK Held,” Rodong Sinmun, August 14, 2020.

  3. [3]

    The WPK CC Executive Policy Council discusses the work of the party and organizes and directs the execution of party decisions.

  4. [4]

    “16th Meeting of Political Bureau of 7th Central Committee of WPK Held,” Rodong Sinmun, August 14, 2020.

  5. [5]

    “Decision of 6th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea On Convening 8th Congress of WPK,” Rodong Sinmun, August 20, 2020.

  6. [6]

    “(2nd LD) Kim Jong-un delegated partial authority to sister: spy agency,” Yonhap, August 20, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200820010152315.

  7. [7]

    “Political Bureau of C.C., WPK Meets under Guidance of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un,” Rodong Sinmun, April 12, 2020.

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