North Korean Party Congress Primer
On August 20, Pyongyang announced that the Eighth Party Congress would be held in January 2021, without specifying exact dates. Precedence suggests that prior to the Congress, the media will report holding local- and ministry-level elections of deputies, giving us an indication that the formal machinery is in motion.
Every North Korean Party Congress since the first one in August 1946 has been different, but all have also shared enough similarities in basic outline to suggest the upcoming will follow suit.
Definition, Role and Significance
According to the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Charter, the Party Congress is the top organ of the party. It is convened by the WPK Central Committee, and the dates are announced six months in advance. The upcoming Eighth Congress will be coming more than a month shy of that timeline. We’ll know more of why once we see the contents of the meeting, but it is worth bearing in mind that January is also when the change of administrations will take place in Washington.
Previously, the North Korean Party Charter stipulated that the Party Congress was to be held every five years. In 2010, the Charter dropped that rule, apparently in recognition that at that point, there hadn’t been a Congress for 30 years. Things may have fallen back into a more regular cadence under Kim Jong Un, who seems to like to use the formal structure of top-level party meetings. The last (Seventh) Congress was not quite five years ago, and in announcing plans for the Eighth Congress, Kim called for convening Party Congresses regularly.
The WPK Charter stipulates that the Party Congress is convened to 1) review the work of the WPK Central Committee and the WPK Central Auditing Commission; 2) adopt, revise or supplement party programs and the Party Charter; 3) discuss and decide basic issues on party policies, strategies, and tactics; 4) elect the chairman of the WPK; and 5) elect the WPK Central Committee and the WPK Central Auditing Commission.
This sounds very dry, and much of it is uninteresting or at least terrifically opaque to outside observers. In the years of the Soviet bloc, with lively intra-bloc debates over ideology and policies, and especially in the thick of the Sino-Soviet split, the North’s Congresses were fascinating to watch for the delicate dance North Korea felt forced to perform, not only in terms of external and domestic policies, but also protocol—who from the other communist countries was seated where, in what order of precedence. Those days are gone, and the upcoming Congress will not have to worry about fraternal party relations.
This Congress will focus on announcing whatever vision Kim Jong Un has for longer-term domestic and foreign policies and plans. Inevitably, that will be reflected in organizational and personnel selections, as well as in the fullness of what is liable to be a long speech by Kim. At the Seventh Congress, Kim spoke for several hours, covering mostly inter-party topics, but also the economy, education and national defense.
It is also common for the leader’s speech to give some attention to the issue of reunification and relations with South Korea. In the Sixth Congress, in October 1980, Kim Il Sung advanced a proposal for a confederation, basically redefining what the North meant by the term “reunification.” Previously, a confederation had been considered a stop on the way to total reunification. In his new proposal, Kim defined a confederation as the endpoint, in effect, giving Pyongyang considerably more room to engage not only Seoul but also Washington.
Current indications are that Kim may send a positive signal toward South Korea at the upcoming Congress, in keeping with a number of straws in the wind, including his speech at the party-founding anniversary military parade in October, where he alluded to the possibility of reengaging South Korea.
Prospects for the Eighth Party Congress
Kim has already made clear that at the Party Congress, he intends to “review in a comprehensive, three-dimensional and anatomical way the deviations and shortcomings in the work for the implementation of the decisions made at the 7th Congress.” A review of the party’s work since the previous Congress is not unusual, but given Kim’s penchant for criticism, it will be interesting to see how he picks apart the “deviations and shortcomings” and at whom the fingers will point.
On the economy, which remains a top concern for Kim, the review will include a look—we might hope for more rather than less detail—at the implementation of the five-year “strategy” for national economic development, which was presented at the previous Congress. That “strategy” was deliberately not labeled a “plan” because it was meant to prepare the way for something more formal and structured. North Korea will announce a five-year economic “plan” at the upcoming Party Congress, which is expected to offer more specific goals than the “strategy” presented at the last one.
At the Seventh Party Congress, Kim Jong Un espoused economic reform and emphasized the leading role of the Cabinet, which traditionally has driven these efforts. He also called for the implementation of the “Socialist Corporate Responsible Management System,” the core of Kim’s economic reform measures that give individual economic units greater freedom to manage their own resources, production and revenue.
The crucial question this time is whether Kim will continue to publicly support previously issued reforms, or whether he will opt to roll some of them back, at least temporarily, in light of the country’s prolonged economic difficulties. North Korean state media over the past year have increasingly sounded the alarm on the ineffective management of national resources and individual economic units not abiding by national economic laws, looking out for their own business interests instead. It is possible that Kim Jong Un may view increased centralization as inevitable for effectively managing national resources and revenue in these difficult times.
Despite speculation about timing the Party Congress around the inauguration of the new US president, the main purpose of the Congress is domestic, and chances are Kim will not spend much time or lay out much detail on foreign policy. The silence from North Korea on the US since July has been deafening, including its lack of reaction to Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump, and there is no way of knowing for sure whether Kim is keeping his options open for dealing with the new US administration, or if he already has plans in place. If there is to be an olive branch, it is unlikely to be nakedly extended, but rather appear in gauzy form, to be detailed in a formal statement weeks later.
In some ways, the most telling evidence on Pyongyang’s thinking about foreign policy may actually emerge in what tack it takes on economic policy. If Kim lays out a strictly go-it-alone path, accompanied by a retreat from his new economic approaches of the past several years, it would likely suggest little interest or willingness to engage the US. Emphasis on the North’s new “war deterrent” strength is likely to be a theme Kim sounds, but won’t in itself mean a return to a more provocative stance.
North Korea’s Party Congresses were held in 1946, 1948, 1956, 1961, 1970, 1980 and 2016.
Based on North Korea’s WPK Charter adopted at the Third WPK Conference in September 2010, whose vernacular text can be found here: https://www.northkoreatech.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/WPKCharter28SEP10.pdf. North Korea revised the Party Charter at the Fourth WPK Conference in April 2012 and again at the Seventh Party Congress in May 2016, but the text of the latest Party Charter does not seem to be available in open source.
“6th Plenary Meeting of 7th Central Committee of WPK Held,” KCNA, August 20, 2020.