January 7, 2021 | Insight

Opening of Eighth Party Congress Shows Kim Jong Un Stays True to His Roots

January 7, 2021 | Insight

Opening of Eighth Party Congress Shows Kim Jong Un Stays True to His Roots

North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party kicked off its Eighth Party Congress on Wednesday. This periodic meeting seeks to outline the North Korean government’s strategic objectives for a broad range of policy issues. While the outcome of the party congress still remains unclear, as the congress is ongoing, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s opening remarks indicate that he seeks to dramatically alter his economic policies, which thus far have failed to reduce poverty in the country. At the same time, Pyongyang’s recent behavior before the meeting suggests that it seeks to continue its development of nuclear capabilities and to extort concessions from Washington and Seoul in order to prolong regime survival.

In his opening remarks, Kim admitted that his regime’s earlier five-year economic development strategy failed to achieve its goals. He referred to the last five years as “unprecedented” and the “worst of the worst” of the past century. Rather than accept full responsibility for this failure, he laid the blame on COVID-19 mitigation measures that have closed the border to trade and crushed the economy. He also blamed recent natural disasters that have destroyed agriculture, as well as international sanctions. In the next few days, the Eighth Party Congress will likely meticulously review the “deviations and shortcomings” of its earlier economic strategy, as Kim put it, and unveil a new five-year plan.

Kim hinted at what Pyongyang’s new five-year plan could look like by declaring that “the surest and fastest way to tackle the current multiple challenges facing us” is to enhance North Korea’s “self-reliant capacity.” The term “self-reliant” likely refers to North Korea’s ethno-nationalist ideology of “juche.” Juche consists of three core elements: ideological autonomy, military independence from imperial influence, and economic self-sufficiency.

This final aspect of juche is most applicable in this context. Kim’s use of the term suggests that the regime could roll back earlier economic reforms from its last five-year plan, such as the Socialist Corporate Responsible Management System. According to experts at 38 North, a U.S.-based website providing in-depth analysis on North Korea, this policy provided North Korean businesses, companies, and other economic units with more autonomy to manage their own resources and generate revenue. However, these companies failed to provide sufficient financial support to the regime and instead sought to profit from their increased autonomy.

The new five-year plan therefore may lead Pyongyang to reassert control over businesses and economic units, hoping that the centralization of revenue will ensure that the regime gains the full benefits of all economic transactions.

The Eighth Party Congress will likely also review North Korea’s policy toward the United States  and South Korea. Since the U.S. presidential election in November, North Korea has yet to make a direct comment regarding President-elect Joe Biden’s victory or his North Korea policy. As the U.S. presidential inauguration on January 20 draws near, the Eighth Party Congress could be an opportune time for Kim to outline his policy for engaging the Biden administration as well as Seoul. Alternatively, Kim may be waiting for the Biden administration to make the first policy statement.

In addition to what is said or not said during the Eighth Party Congress, Pyongyang may provide indirect signs of its policy toward Washington. For instance, recent reports suggest that North Korea is preparing for a military parade in the main public square in Pyongyang to celebrate the Eighth Party Congress.

Kim may use this parade – as he did with an earlier military parade in October that showcased a possible but unconfirmed new intercontinental ballistic missile and a submarine-launched ballistic missile – to signal to Washington that Pyongyang will continue developing its nuclear capabilities. It is also possible that North Korea will conduct a missile or weapons test in order to challenge the new Biden administration. A missile launch may put the Kim leadership in a position to try to force concessions from the new U.S. administration, such as early sanctions relief.

To be sure, on January 5, General Robert Abrams, the commander of United Nations Command, ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command, and United States Forces Korea, stated that there have been no signs that Pyongyang is preparing for a major provocation. However, Abrams added that Washington cannot rule out the possibility of a weapons test, because circumstances could change quickly, even within a week.

The Eighth Party Congress could also see North Korea extend an olive branch to the South Korean government to renew efforts for inter-Korean cooperation. The North Korean government already made a similar effort during the October 10 parade, when Kim expressed hope that the “day would come when the north and south take each other’s hand again.”

Although seemingly benign, such a statement should warrant concern in both Seoul and Washington. This is because Kim, if his past behavior is any indication, does not share South Korea’s vision for peace and reconciliation. Historically, North Korea has exploited diplomacy in an effort to extract concessions from Seoul and Washington, such as a reduction in U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.

North Korea’s lack of sincerity is also apparent in its open defiance of confidence-building measures implemented by Seoul pursuant to the Comprehensive Military Agreement of 2018. This agreement sought to reduce military tensions near the Demilitarized Zone and the East and West Seas. Yet Pyongyang proceeded to conduct approximately 31 missile and rocket tests to threaten South Korean and U.S. forces.

Additionally, Article 2 of North Korea’s constitution still states that North Korea is a “revolutionary state” intent on reunifying the entire Korean Peninsula under the North’s leadership. The regime has made no effort to alter this provision.

Extending an olive branch also benefits North Korea by potentially exacerbating underlying tensions and ideological differences between South Korea and the United States. The current South Korean government has repeatedly expressed its intent to use inter-Korean engagement as the primary means of establishing peace and achieving North Korea’s denuclearization. This approach has often been at odds with Washington’s efforts to maintain and enforce sanctions and other forms of pressure. The North could undermine U.S. and South Korean diplomatic leverage by isolating one from the other.

When he takes office, Biden should not make concessions to the Kim regime. Instead, he should recalibrate and impose a comprehensive pressure campaign integrating diplomatic, economic, cyber, information, and military resources. This collective effort should aim to persuade Pyongyang to return to negotiations – but on the terms of the United States and its allies.

Washington should also better manage bilateral relations with South Korea to eliminate significant policy differences. This is essential to offset Pyongyang’s attempts to divide the two historical allies.

Critics may argue that a renewal of pressure is an underhanded ploy to yield regime collapse in North Korea. However, this is not the case. Imposing pressure is meant to instill more urgency in Pyongyang to consider an alternative regime survival strategy that does not involve nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Eliciting such change in North Korea’s strategic calculus is essential for the success of any future U.S. and South Korean diplomatic effort.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mathew Ha is a research analyst. Both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David, Mathew, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David and Mathew on Twitter @davidmaxwell161 and @matjunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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