Key Results of The Eighth Party Congress in North Korea (Part 2 of 2)

(Source: Rodong Sinmun)

The Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) was held in North Korea earlier this month. The first part of this report highlighted mainly economic issues such as the growing dominance of the state over the market, an increasingly domestic focus of economic policy, parallels to South Korea’s development in the 1970s and details on key industries. Part two focuses on internal North Korean dynamics, the DPRK’s national security policy and its foreign relations.

12) Role of the party further strengthened, Congresses to become regular events.

This is a consistent development that we have observed since 2010, when a rare party event was used to introduce Kim Jong Un to the public. In late 2011, it was the party who acted as the kingmaker and pronounced Kim as the new leader. In 2016, the first Party Congress after 36 years was held under his guidance.

In 2021, party statutes have been changed so that the Congress is supposed to be held every five years. Moreover, conferences of secretaries of party cells and secretaries of primary party committees are also to be convened every five years. The subordinate role of the military as “the revolutionary force of the party” has been stressed explicitly; a military parade was held after the Eighth Congress to emphasize this.

13) Kim Jong Un replaces his late father as general secretary of the party.

On day six of the Congress, 138 members and 111 alternate members of the Central Committee were elected.[1] Kim Jong Un was elected as general secretary of the party (조선로동당 총비서). This is remarkable, considering that on April 11, 2012, Kim Jong Il had been named the “eternal general secretary” (영원한 총비서) of the party.[2] Does this open the way for Kim Jong Un to become president of the DPRK, despite Kim Il Sung being the “eternal president” (영원한 주석)?

Such a move would be ideologically dangerous, since the two previous leaders are a major source of legitimacy for Kim Jong Un. Thus, we would expect Kim to leave their symbols of legitimacy, including their titles, untouched. However, in 2012 he already did something similar when he decided to change the appearance of the iconic statues of his grandfather and supplement them by adding statues of his father.

But we should also consider that Kim Il Sung only took the title of president in 1972 after it became more likely that he would engage in direct negotiations with South Korea and the United States—and when he found it appropriate to have the same title as his potential counterparts. North Korea takes formal status and titles very seriously; thus, there could be a desire to adjust the formal status of their own leader after the flurry of first diplomatic encounters in 2018 with the presidents of China, South Korea, the United States and Russia.

However, it should also be noted that the change to make use of the “secretary” title more common at the Eighth Party Congress went beyond Kim Jong Un. Titles throughout all party levels were changed from “chairman” to three levels of “secretary”: chief secretary, secretary, and vice secretary (책임비서, 비서, 부비서). The “Executive Policy Council” (정무국) of the party was changed into “Secretariat” (비서국), and the “Executive Policy Office” (정무처) to “Sub-Secretariat” (비서처). From that perspective, it could be that we simply witnessed a harmonization of formal titles throughout the structure of the party.

14) New name for the Youth League.

In his report, Kim Jong Un mentioned “shortcomings” (부족점) in education, public health, literature and the arts, and emphasized the need to “thoroughly eliminate non-socialist elements.” The Youth League was accused of “failure to fulfill its missions and duties,” and it was decided to change its name; this will happen at a future Youth League conference, but no further details have been provided.

What are the options? Currently, it is called the “Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League.” This name could either be supplemented or even replaced by that of Kim Jong Un, whose name since 2012 has been the only one on slogans on top of school entrances. Another option would be a name without reference to any individual, like “Revolutionary Socialist Youth League.”

The most likely option would be the addition of an ideological term. In fact, the last name change of the Youth League in 2016 included the removal of the word “socialist,” so this could simply be undone while leaving “Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist” in place. The new name would then be “Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Socialist Youth League.” State socialist systems have never been shy about using long and complicated terms and titles. But analysts should nevertheless keep an eye on this issue, since deleting the names of the two previous leaders, if it indeed happens, would mean a deliberate diminution of their role and their relegation to the past, with huge implications for the ideological direction of the system.

15) No major purges.

In the past, Party Congresses have been occasions to deal with actual or perceived intra-party opposition. This time, there were some personnel reshuffles, but no spectacular demotions. Kim did, somewhat unusually, mention inspection teams that were sent out to provinces and administrative units that would look for “neglected tasks,” “wrong” and “formalistic” ways, “shortcomings” and “defects,” and noted that party finances were “reviewed” with the goal of “improving” them. However, the tone of what has been published so far does not indicate that the inspections and disciplinary actions that took place before the Congress were extraordinarily harsh. Likewise, Kim’s calls to “root out [the] abuse of power, bureaucratic practices, irregularities and corruption,” as well as “high-handed and arbitrary practices,” are a far cry from his remarks at the Seventh Congress five years ago.[3]

16) Possible move towards collective leadership.

This is one of the more speculative conclusions from reading the documents of the Eighth Party Congress, but it might also be the one with potentially the most far-reaching consequences. The powers of the Presidium of the Politburo were enhanced, and its members can now preside over Politburo meetings “upon authorization by the head of the Party,” which is Kim Jong Un.[4] One could speculate that the North Korean leader, after nine years in power, is experiencing some fatigue or that he is more confident in the stability of his rule and thus decided to delegate more work to his subordinates. In any case, managing a country and a system of the size and complexity of North Korea is nothing a single person can do efficiently.

Furthermore, in my analyses before the succession from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un, I had argued that North Korea might—for very pragmatic reasons—get ready for the establishment of a more collective form of leadership, following the model of the Soviet Union in the post-Stalin era and of China in the post-Mao era. The further easing of rules and enhancement of the powers of lower levels in the party organization could support this point of view. For example, it was decided at the Eighth Congress that the Central Military Commission can convene with the “attendance of necessary members only in disregard of presence rate.” In other words, no quorum is needed and minority decisions are possible.[5]

The power of the Party Central Auditing Commission was increased, as were the powers of provincial, city and county auditing commissions in unspecified ways. Given the large and growing number of top-ranking officials in major party organs such as the Central Committee and 15 departments with important responsibilities, it appears that, even if a form of collective leadership has not been established, there will be greater burden-sharing in decision-making on party affairs. The names and photos of the top officials were published in North Korean media.

17) Kim Yo Jong remains important.

The leader’s younger sister is no longer an alternate member of the Politburo, but she is still on the Central Committee, where she was listed at position 21 out of 138. Furthermore, she was seen playing an elevated role in the official North Korean media coverage of the Congress as something akin to a personal assistant of her brother.

18) Massive military buildup planned despite economic difficulties.

After calling the completion of the nation’s nuclear weapons program in November 2017 “the most brilliant achievement” of the past years, Kim Jong Un provided some details on the military development of his country. He specifically mentioned the Hwasong intercontinental ballistic missile and the Pukguksong submarine-launched ballistic missile, along with progress in miniaturizing nuclear weapons and making them “standardized, tactical and weaponized.” He announced the development of “super-large hydrogen bombs” (초대형수소탄), of 11-axle missile trailers, mid- and long-range cruise missiles, anti-aircraft rocket systems, heavy tanks, howitzers, multiple-warhead missiles, new types of ballistic missiles, “hypersonic gliding flight warheads” (극초음속활공비행전투부), electronic weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles and military reconnaissance satellites.[6]

Kim especially stressed the need for his military to be able to destroy targets within a range of 15,000 km. He further claimed that his country was in the final stages of developing a new nuclear submarine, and announced that his country will operate a military reconnaissance satellite “in the near future” (가까운 기간내에) as well as drones with a range of 500 km.

Reiterating North Korea’s long-held position, Kim argued that it would be “foolish and dangerous” (어리석고 위험천만하다) not to keep North Korea’s defense capabilities at the highest possible level, while “the number of the enemy’s advanced weapons targeting the nation is increasing” (국가를 겨냥한 적들의 첨단무기들이 늘어나고있). He interpreted the past experience as proof that such defense capabilities can keep the US at bay and guarantee peace on the Korean Peninsula.[7]

Kim rejected the notion that his country has to choose between having a strong military arsenal and the pursuit of diplomacy, reflecting his 2013 announcement of parallel development of the economy and nuclear weapons. Instead, he argued that diplomacy would be more effective if conducted from a position of military strength. According to Kim, such military defense will be necessary “as long as there is imperialism on this planet” (지구상에 제국주의가 남아있고), which is further confirmation that North Korea has no interest in imminent denuclearization.[8]

19) Friendlier relations with China.

Although no Chinese delegation attended, there was an unusually extensive exchange of official notes of congratulations and encouragement, all published in the party newspaper Rodong Sinmun. In his remarks on foreign policy, Kim spoke positively about the prospects for diplomatic cooperation “with socialist countries,” which seems to indicate the hope for closer cooperation mainly with China. This is not very surprising considering the few options North Korea currently has and China’s ability at the United Nations Security Council to veto the enactment of further sanctions on North Korea. Kim’s friendlier tone toward Beijing stands in sharp contrast to his thinly veiled criticism of China at the Seventh Party Congress in 2016, when he expressed his disgust over the “filthy wind of bourgeois liberty and ‘reform’ and ‘openness’ blowing in our neighborhood.”[9]

20) The US: main enemy, or just main obstacle to development?

Kim Jong Un claimed a “rapid rise in the external status” of his country over the past several years, thereby acknowledging the positive effects of diplomacy, particularly in 2018. The development of friendly ties with China, Russia, Cuba and Vietnam were mentioned, indicating something like a hierarchy of bilateral relations.

Kim also spoke about a “dramatic change” (극적 변화) in relations with the United States and mentioned his summits with US President Donald Trump, underscoring the great success they represented considering the relatively small size of his country and being surrounded by “imperialist reactionaries” (제국주의반동들). The external environment was nevertheless described as “unprecedentedly harsh” (류례를 찾아볼수 없이 엄혹하였다), due to pressure by the US and its allies.[10]

In a formulation that drew some attention in the West, the US was called the “primary obstacle” (기본장애물) and “biggest enemy” (최대의 주적) to the “development of our revolution” (우리 혁명발전).[11] The wording is important here. The English translation implies that the US is the DPRK’s worst enemy, while the Korean version of the report could be read as stressing the role of the US as the main obstacle and enemy to its development, which is not necessarily the same. The official English translation was also weak elsewhere in this part of Kim’s remarks, for example, calling for “subjugating” the US, when “overpowering” would have been a much better translation of 제압하고 굴복시키다.[12]

21) No new olive branch to South Korea.

The general tone on relations with South Korea is pessimistic and defensive. No new offer or initiative was made. The key point on unification was that relations have fallen back to the level “before the publication of the Panmunjom Declaration,” referring to the summit meeting with Moon Jae-in in 2018. Kim Jong Un mentioned “hostile military acts” (군사적적대행위) and “smear campaign[s]” (모략소동) against his country as the main reasons for this assessment, which is somewhat odd since the South Korean government has, in fact, only recently made the controversial decision—critics saw this as appeasement—to ban the launching of propaganda balloons to North Korea by NGOs.[13]

The North Korean leader complained about South Korea’s imports of military equipment, the modernization of its armed forces, including ballistic and cruise missiles, and joint military exercises with the United States. Kim argued that South Korea would bring up “inessential issues” such as quarantine cooperation, humanitarian cooperation and tourism while neglecting its previously made commitments on more substantial matters. Downplaying the relevance of medical aid could be a cynical move to pave the way for accepting South Korean aid. Kim concludes that “the prospects for improving relations between North and South Korea are uncertain (북남관계개선의 전망은 불투명하다).[14]

22) Wolf-warrior diplomacy, North Korea-style.

On other external relations, Kim called for active diplomacy, which does bear some resemblance to what has in the West been labeled China’s aggressive “wolf-warrior diplomacy.” An interesting passage concerns the call for a more active propaganda effort, or “enhancing the role of the external information sector.”[15] No specifics were provided, but we can expect increased efforts in the field of electronic media. It remains to be seen what this will mean in detail, and how the West will react. The recent banning of North Korean content on Twitter and YouTube could indicate a possible direction.

In terms of general strategy, Kim repeated his country’s desire for peace based on deterrence. He promised to reciprocate US policy by “responding to power with power and goodwill with goodwill” (강대강, 선대선). Kim confirmed yet another time that North Korea, as a “responsible nuclear power,” (책임적인 핵보유국), will not use nuclear weapons first.[16]

23) Implementation phase begins with parliamentary session on January 17, 2021.

This announcement highlights the current structure of power in North Korea. After the party has set the strategic direction, the parliament and the executive branch are responsible for the transmission of these decisions to the working level. The new five-year plan and the national budget will be the key issues for discussion at the fourth session of the current Supreme People’s Assembly.

  1. [1]

    “Sixth-Day Sitting of 8th WPK Congress Held,” KCNA, January 11, 2021.

  2. [2]

    “WPK Conference Holds Kim Jong Il in High Esteem as Eternal General Secretary of WPK,” KCNA, April 11, 2012.

  3. [3]

    “1st Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee Held under Guidance of General Secretary of WPK Kim Jong Un,” KCNA, January 11, 2021.

  4. [4]

    “WPK Rules Revised at 8th Congress of WPK,” KCNA, January 10, 2021.

  5. [5]


  6. [6]

    “Great Programme for Struggle Leading Korean-style Socialist Construction to Fresh Victory On Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at Eighth Congress of WPK,” DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 9, 2021,

  7. [7]

    Ibid., and author translation of “조선로동당 제8차대회에서 하신 경애하는 김정은동지의 보고에 대하여,” KCNA, January 9, 2021.

  8. [8]

    Author translation of “조선로동당 제8차대회에서 하신 경애하는 김정은동지의 보고에 대하여,” KCNA, January 9, 2021.

  9. [9]

    Author translation.

  10. [10]

    Author translation of “조선로동당 제8차대회에서 하신 경애하는 김정은동지의 보고에 대하여,” KCNA, January 9, 2021.

  11. [11]


  12. [12]

    “Great Programme for Struggle Leading Korean-style Socialist Construction to Fresh Victory On Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at Eighth Congress of WPK,” DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 9, 2021,

  13. [13]


  14. [14]

    Ibid., and author translation of “조선로동당 제8차대회에서 하신 경애하는 김정은동지의 보고에 대하여,” KCNA, January 9, 2021.

  15. [15]

    “Great Programme for Struggle Leading Korean-style Socialist Construction to Fresh Victory On Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at Eighth Congress of WPK,” DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 9, 2021,

  16. [16]

    Author translation of “조선로동당 제8차대회에서 하신 경애하는 김정은동지의 보고에 대하여,” KCNA, January 9, 2021.

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