North Korea’s Eighth Workers’ Party Congress: Putting Things Into Context

There has been a lot written about the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), some of it good and worth reading. All of it is necessarily from the perspective of observers far outside the assembly hall. No doubt, sitting in that vast space, literally filled to the gills with people, was not the most wonderful way to spend January 5-11. For anyone crammed in the back, where it was impossible to see much of anything, it was no doubt even less enjoyable. Still, seeing was not the point of the meeting; there wasn’t really much to see. They damn sure better to have been able to hear everything, though. The entire nine-hour work report delivered by Kim Jong Un, spread over several days, was probably not equally important to every attendee. A few might, if so inclined, have daydreamed and doodled through some of it, though always careful to look alert and interested.

However, there are several areas that would have been especially important to the majority of delegates. First and foremost, most ears were likely tuned to what was said on economic issues. Secondly, military and defense issues would have demanded attention, either because the listeners were directly involved in that sector, or because there is a general understanding of the impact military matters has on other areas of life. All in the hall would know that belts had been tightened to pay for the military for years and still could be again. A third subject, joined at the hip with military matters, would be diplomacy, though few would know much about that, and so a good deal of what was said would fall into what we might label as exhortation for domestic purposes.

Analytic Methodology

What little we can know at this point about the Eighth Party Congress—and it is very little because Pyongyang did not want the outside world to know much—depends in large part on comparison with the Seventh Party Congress in 2016 and most of the plenums between then and now. That reality, in turn, makes it necessary to take a little detour here to look at the question of methodology, loose rules of analysis we don’t impose on the North but are derived from experience and observing the North’s own practice. Boiled down, there are three key elements: comparison, context and actual contact.

  • Comparison: No single rhetorical formulation in a North Korean speech or media commentary can, by itself, carry much analytical freight. The question always has to be, what are the additional angles and precedents that need to be explored to understand a formulation in all of its dimensions? What makes it a threat? A concession? A change in line?
  • Context: In addition to comparison, context is crucial. What are the circumstances surrounding decisions and within which rhetoric is repeated or changed? Interpreting Kim Jong Un’s remarks at the April 2019 Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) meeting made little sense without reference to the failed Hanoi Summit only two months before, not simply in terms of the explicit references, but the overall tone.
  • Contact: Finally, what can we know from practical, real-life experience? How do the public formulations relate to actual policy evolution? Public rhetoric is not the same thing as policy. The former is usually couched in more categorical, rigid language. Much of the language most of the time—especially when it is carried in domestic media—on standing up to the United States fits into this category. But often, these same formulations, while on first hearing may seem tough, are actually crafted to provide flexibility at a later date. North Korean positions can (and do) change. In the case of a Party Congress, the time horizons for goals and projections are mixed, often without clear lines drawn.

Economy: No Retreat From Reform

To return to substantive issues, the first order of business for the North Korean leadership is the economy. Almost everything is in one way or another based on this. Since Kim Jong Un came to power, there is evidence that he has planned to build on, and to some extent go beyond, his father’s efforts at economic reform, not in the Western sense or even exactly in line with the Chinese version.

A key section of the Congress work report, for example, dealt with “socialist management.” This has been a central topic of attention for years in the North. Internally, the concept seems to have evolved and was formalized into the “socialist system of responsible business operation” (also known as SERMS). The term has been a constant focus of attention in the DPRK economic journal, Kyongje Yongu, in articles questioning and shaping the concept, all the while trying to fit it into the accepted ideological boundaries while also pushing the envelope before and especially after Kim Jong Un authoritatively blessed the idea in the Seventh Party Congress in May 2016. The development and experimentation of ways to operationalize “socialist management” is clearly a complicated task, but it is real and will be ongoing precisely because Kim Jong Un has made clear he is serious about making this and other aspects of his push for economic reforms produce results.

There was almost nothing in the long, public work report summary that leads to the conclusion of significant changes in that approach, designed to give enterprise managers considerable freedom to make decisions and use resources. Though the publicly released work report summary did not mention SERMS, it did refer to numerous elements that in recent years have signaled what in the North Korean context could be considered reform. “Management” is the main concept, but economic “levers,” and the central role of the Cabinet, are others.

As these ideas were implemented over a period of years since Kim took power, the economy improved. No one who visited Pyongyang in 2017 could have mistaken the signs of progress. It seems unlikely that Kim would abandon them. Yet the failure of the work report summary to include explicit references to SERMS necessarily raised a question—was it in the full text, or had the concept, in fact, been dropped from the vocabulary and thus abandoned?

The “resolution” of the Party Congress report seemed to confirm that reform still was an integral part of Kim’s economic policy. It called for “researching and perfecting the economic methods that accord with our actual circumstances” and alluded to “methods that are being researched and introduced on a trial basis”—strongly indicating that Pyongyang is still experimenting with new ideas and ways of conducting “socialist management” fit for what Kim and others see suitable for the North’s circumstances.

There came an even clearer answer a few days later, at the SPA meeting, where SERMS was explicitly mentioned as a central tenet for economic policy. Given that the reports and “debates” at the SPA were undoubtedly based on what was said at the Party Congress, it is reasonable to assume that SERMS was very much part of the instructions delivered to the Cabinet and relevant economic ministries. This should be considered further evidence that the basic tenet of Kim’s economic policy—delegating responsibilities to lower units, encouraging innovation, doing away with outdated procedures and continuing with new experiments to increase productivity—is very much is alive.

What is apparently of concern to the leadership is to blunt the negative repercussions and have SERMS carried out in a way that is manageable and beneficial to the state. The references to state control and unified guidance are thus not indications of that reform is under attack but rather that it is constantly being monitored and refined in an effort to fit what is something of a round peg in a square hole. What the SPA heard made this clear:

Leading economic organs failed to come up with measures so as to enable economic levers, such as planning work, fiscal matters and finance, and prices, to have a positive impact on enterprises’ production rejuvenation and expanded reproduction. Consequently, they obstructed enterprises from bringing out the vitality of SERMS at a high level.[1]

That SERMS is still considered vital at the enterprise level was demonstrated when, at the SPA meeting, the new State Planning Commission chairman and the manager of the Chollima Steel Complex pledged to implement the idea effectively.

On the surface, a few references to “socialist commerce” in the Congress’ work report summary appeared to signal pushback on market reforms.[2]

It is a very urgent issue at present to develop the state-run commerce and preserve the socialist nature of public catering and welfare service and set forth the tasks for restoring our commerce to the public service activities for supporting the people’s life and promoting their material well-being, true to its name.

The important tasks to be surely carried out by our commerce at present is to restore the state’s leading role and control the overall commerce service activities and preserve the nature of socialist commerce serving the people.

Commerce service units should put their service activities on a popular, cultural, modern and diverse basis with correct management strategy and thus create new socialist service culture of our own style.

In fact, Kim Jong Un used the same language in his fifth plenum speech a year ago when he called for:

…studying and setting up measures for the methodology of improving commercial service work to maintain the true form of socialist commerce and, at the same time, guarantee both national interests and the people’s convenience by urgently recovering the state’s commercial system and socialist commerce; the issue of clearing out unnecessary procedures and systems in improving economic management in accordance with the demand of the times…[3]

In other words, the formulations on socialist commerce in last week’s work report were not new, and thus did not suggest a tightening beyond anything that had been signaled before. Moreover, while this is still open to interpretation, other references to socialist commerce, including those in the North’s economic journal, suggest that it is not necessarily markets, but rather still-existing state-controlled commercial service activity that Kim wanted, and still wants, improved. For example, a Kyongje Yongu article published in early spring 2017, focused exclusively on “socialist commerce” said:

A branch of the people’s economy that is in charge of meeting service demands related to the people’s material and cultural everyday life, socialist commerce is made up of various sectors like commodity commerce, public catering, welfare service, and procurement…Upholding our party’s politics of loving the people, socialist commerce is placing social service networks as close to residential districts as possible and is actively introducing various types of rational service methods so that people can use them conveniently.[4]

As for admissions of economic problems, Kim described the failures in December 2019 at the fifth party plenum, and again at a party plenum in August 2020, so it was neither new nor startling that this was repeated at the Congress. If anything, the new five-year economic plan is meant to fill in where the previous five-year “economic strategy” had failed in laying the groundwork for real progress. For example, though the work report’s mention of tourism may only be part of a laundry list that went into nine hours of presentation, Kim knows that tourism is not a “ready-on-demand” issue. Fifteen or so years ago, his father was pushing this area, which involved considerable preparation—new hotels, new infrastructure from roads to railways, new administrative procedures adopted and worked out with the Chinese to expedite tourism.

Diplomacy: Opening for Engagement

One crucial question left hanging from the December 2019 fifth plenum remarks was Kim Jong Un’s assertion:

Although it is true that we earnestly need external circumstances favorable for the building of the economy, we can never sell our dignity, which we have so far guarded as our life, in hopes of a splendid transformation.[5]

This appeared to be a major reversal of Pyongyang’s approach for the previous two decades, i.e., looking for improvement in the external security situation as a precondition for economic progress—a bromide Beijing had long preached to the North Koreans. There is nothing in the work report from the Congress this time that suggests Kim still holds that view, though nothing explicitly contradicts it either. There is, however, evidence that Kim has deliberately left himself extra room to resume engagement with Washington when the time comes. The work report summary says:

Stressing that the strong defense capabilities of the state never precludes diplomacy but serves as a great means that propels toward the correct orientation and guarantees its success, the report analyzed that the prevailing situation proves once again that there can never be satisfaction in boosting military strength.[6]


The report solemnly clarified the stand of the WPK to approach the US on the principle of answering force with toughness and good faith in kind in the future, too, stating that a key to establishing a new relationship (emphasis added) between the DPRK and the US lies in the US withdrawal of its hostile policy towards the DPRK.[7]

In the work report, the key paragraphs on contacts with the US are part of a larger section meant to highlight Kim Jong Un’s “adroit external activities” that “demonstrated the dignity and prestige” of the DPRK. In both his April 2019 SPA speech and December 2019 plenum address, Kim had brushed aside the US-DPRK summits by suggesting Washington had never been serious and, implicitly, the outcomes had been worthless. The work report at the Congress took a markedly different tack. Especially noteworthy, it employed a formulation implying that Pyongyang considers the June 2018 Singapore joint statement is still a valid basis for improving US-DPRK relations:

At the face-to-face meetings of the top leaders of the two countries, the first of its kind in the hostile relations between the two countries, the Party Central Committee yielded with strong stand of independence the joint declaration assuring establishment of a new DPRK-US relationship.[8]

The more negative formulations in the work report about the US that have been widely picked up in US media are best read as normal background noise. It is routine—and to some extent ideologically necessary for domestic purposes—for the North to repeat that the heart of US policy toward North Korea will never change no matter who is president. Use of that hoary formulation is not meant to rule out engaging the US. Also, in a shift from the language Kim used at the Seventh Party Congress in 2016, when he referred to the United States as the “sworn enemy,” at the Eighth Congress, the US was portrayed as the “principal” enemy. The former has a moral ring to it, while the latter would seem a question of priority and is thus amenable to change.

Balance: Military-Economy Seesaw

A central problem and frequent source of debate in Pyongyang over the years has been the question of the division of resources between the defense and civilian sectors. In 2001, a key formulation appeared, asserting that the country had reached its goals in the military and ideological realms, and what remained was to improve the economy. Variations on that formulation continue to signal where the is policy heading.

From mid-2017, Kim had decided the time was fast approaching for him to take a major step toward rebalancing the civilian/military equation. By the end of 2017, he declared that the main nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programs had achieved their goals, in effect clearing the way for new emphasis on economic matters. At the next party plenum (April 2018), he announced new policy—a “new strategic line” of “everything for the economy.” That was never meant to be taken literally, defense industry research and production were not stopping, but it gave Kim the opening for new domestic and foreign policy direction.

This line has held. In his speech at the October 2020 military parade, after reviewing the defense buildup, Kim said:

What is left now is to ensure that our people enjoy a sufficient and civilized life to the full[,] free from difficulties any longer. (Author’s emphasis added.)

In his concluding speech at the Eighth Congress, which unlike the work report, was provided in full, Kim clearly restated this priority:

The socialist economic construction is the most important revolutionary task on which we should focus our all-out effort at present.[9]

From the outside, in the face of the parades of new weapons systems coupled with some of Kim’s rhetoric, there may not seem like much balance. Through mid-2020, Kim’s own appearances in the field, tests of new systems and the rapid promotion of two military officials into the upper ranks of the party leadership all were calculated to signal—and, in fact, reflected—Kim’s desire to make solid, demonstrable progress to keep Seoul and Washington at bay and to give him extra leverage—or options.

The point is not that Kim is giving up developing new or improving existing “deterrence,” certainly not in the absence of any progress with the US. Nor is he about to give up a long-term approach of “peace through strength” that Pyongyang has used as the rationale for its WMD buildup. Rather, it is that there will be in the North a constant tension between military and civilian priorities. And that as often as not, the balance will tip toward the civilian. Ultimately, it will be the interplay between these considerations that will shape the policy.

  1. [1]

    Author translation of “조선민주주의인민공화국 주체109(2020)년 국가예산집행의 결산과 주체110(2021)년 국가예산에 대하여 최고인민회의 제14기 제4차회의에 제기한 국가예산보고,” Rodong Sinmun, January 18, 2021.

  2. [2]

    Author translation of “우리 식 사회주의건설을 새 승리에로 인도하는 위대한 투쟁강령조선로동당 제8차대회에서 하신 경애하는 김정은 동지의 보고에 대하여,” Rodong Sinmun, January 9, 2021.

  3. [3]

    Author translation of “조선로동당 중앙위 제7기 제5차전원회-김정은위원장 지도,” KCNA, January 1, 2020.

  4. [4]

    Author translation of Kim Pong Sun, “The Ideology on the Essence of Socialist Commerce Elucidated by Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il,” Kyongje Yongu 2, (2017).

  5. [5]

    Author translation of “조선로동당 중앙위 제7기 제5차전원회-김정은위원장 지도,” KCNA, January 1, 2020.

  6. [6]

    Author translation of “우리 식 사회주의건설을 새 승리에로 인도하는 위대한 투쟁강령조선로동당 제8차대회에서 하신 경애하는 김정은 동지의 보고에 대하여,” Rodong Sinmun, January 9, 2021.

  7. [7]


  8. [8]


  9. [9]

    “WPK General Secretary Kim Jong Un Makes Concluding Speech at Eighth Congress of WPK,” Rodong Sinmun, January 13, 2021.

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