When Kim Jong-un convened a rare Korea Workers’ Party (KWP) Congress on May 6, – the first in 36 years and only the 7th in North Korean history – it generated speculation of sweeping policy changes. But the Congress produced no historic reform, only a disappointing, crickets-chirping ennui.
The Party Congress emphasized pageantry over policy change, rubber stamp over reform, and coronation over consolidation of power. Kim Jong-un signaled he will stay the course of nuclear weapons and socialist economic policies.
No Denuclearization. Directly rebuffing UN resolutions and North Korea’s previous pledges to denuclearize, Kim vowed once again to expand North Korea’s nuclear arsenal both quantitatively and qualitatively. “As a responsible nuclear weapons state,” he proclaimed, “our republic will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is encroached upon.”
Yet, Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened the U.S. and its allies with nuclear annihilation for approving UN resolutions, conducting military exercises, or allowing their citizens to exercise their constitutionally-protected right to freedom of expression.
No Policy Shift. Kim has shown a propensity to emulate his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, rather than his father, Kim Jong-il. Convening a Party Congress and shifting the power center from the military back to the KWP is consistent with Kim Il-sung’s method of wielding absolute power.
The Party Congress affirmed Kim Jong-un’s byungjin strategy of concurrently pursuing both security and economic objectives—the “guns and butter” approach or “nukes and kimchi.” Neither the power shift from the military to party nor adopting byungjin over Kim Jong-il’s ‘military first’ policy reflects a check on Kim Jong-un’s dictatorial rule. Nor does either portend a moderation in North Korean behavior.
As Kim Jong-un declared in March 2013, his byungjin policy is patterned on Kim Il-sung’s December 1962 policy of “simultaneously carrying out the economic construction and national defense [in which North Korea] builds with a gun in one hand, and a sickle and hammer in the other.” Kim fils has simply updated the policy by giving it a nuclear face.
No Economic Reform. Some experts predicted bold economic reform–something they’ve been predicting for decades. Once again, they were disappointed. While three generations of the Kim regime have periodically allowed some economic changes, these were never as extensive in scope or duration as predicted. And the regime usually walked them back either as economic conditions improved or as the regime grew more fearful of losing control over its minions.
Consistent with Kim’s previous speeches, the Party Congress statements were replete with numerous references to monolithic leadership, socialism, and government-directed production plans. There were no references to free markets, liberalization of private trade, or entrepreneurialism. Declaring a “five-year strategy for state economic development” doesn’t reflect a country about to embrace free market principles.
No Personnel Reshuffle. The Party Congress anointed Kim Jong-un with the additional title of Chairman of the KWP, but the event didn’t mark a final consolidation of power over factions or enemies. That happened years ago, shortly after his father’s death in December 2011. Within six months he had acquired six important titles giving him absolute control over the military, party, and government.
Kim’s subsequent purges reflected a strong, confident leader willing to go after the senior-most officials rather than a weak, embattled leader desperately fighting off challengers. Kim is the undisputed center of power in North Korea. The Party Congress was surprising only in that it did not include a major personnel reshuffle, even to clear out the deadwood of septuagenarian officials.
No Transparency. The presence of 130 foreign journalists raised hopes of greater openness under Kim Jong-un.I Instead, the reporters were taken for a ride – literally and figuratively. The journalists, each with a government-provided minder, were never allowed access to the Congress or officials. Instead, they were confined to a press room or taken on buses for Potemkin- village visits to a day care center and wire factory. Scrambling for relevancy, reporters were reduced to conducting tightly controlled interviews with the man on the street.
How bad was it? The BBC crew was expelled for “disrespectful” reporting. It had referred to Kim Jong-un as “corpulent.” The Los Angeles Times reporter was not invited to a press conference because her articles were “not beautiful,” since she correctly pointed out the inanity of placidly accepting North Korea’s constraints.
No Hope for Change. Kim’s calls for dialogue with South Korea and the United States may be interpreted by some as a gesture for engagement. But they echo previous, highly conditional gestures and will not resonate in either Washington or Seoul. Kim continues to push rapidly to improve both his nuclear and missile capabilities, engaging in a rapid-fire series of tests this year.
There is now an unprecedented international consensus on the need to pressure North Korea. Certainly more can be done. Just as the UN banned Iran’s export of oil, so it could ban North Korea’s export of its minerals. (The “livelihood purposes” loophole in the recent UN resolution is larger than the ban itself.) . But perhaps more important is fully implementing the new, expanded authorities.
Originally published in The Diplomat