JPRI Critique Vol. XXII No. 6 (May 2016)
Showtime in Pyongyang at North Korea’s Seventh Party Congress
Kongdan (Katy) Oh
It is the declared responsibility of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party to convene a party congress every five years or “when necessary… earlier or later.” After the sixth congress was convened in 1980, it was apparently unnecessary to convene the next party congress for another 36 years.
The congresses are not held to give delegates an opportunity to debate and vote on legislation. There is no room for debate, and when a vote is held, all the delegates with voting rights hold up their red party card-booklets in unison to ratify the decisions the party leader has already made. The delegates’ real function is to celebrate the party’s self-proclaimed successes and present a united political front to their fellow citizens and to the entire world.
From this perspective, it’s easy to see why no congress was convened for over three decades. By 1980, the North Korean economy was slipping. A succession of economic year-plans failed to reach their goals. The 1987 seven-year plan was extended by two years; then Kim Il-sung had died, the economy crashed, and the plan was never mentioned again. In short, after 1980 there were few successes that the party could take credit for.
Moreover, Kim Jong-il, who took office when his father died in 1994, was a terrible public speaker. His only broadcast public utterance lasted less than six seconds. It wasn’t until his son Kim Jong-un took the helm that public speeches by the leader resumed, even when he had nothing to boast about. Kim Jong-un has been brave enough, in these hard times, to stage an extravagant celebratory event in the form of a party congress.
Congress Agenda: Back to the Past, with Nukes
During the week first week of May, when the congress was held in Pyongyang, I was visiting Seoul. Thanks to jet lag, I spent many hours in the middle of the night watching TV replays of the congress proceedings with accompanying South Korean analysis. Those who have read or viewed excerpts from the congress must agree that it was supremely boring. For three days, some 3,500 party delegates feigned hours of interest and attention inside Pyongyang’s April 25 House of Culture (formerly the February 8 House of Culture, before the founding date of the Korean People’s Army was changed).
No foreign delegations attended this time around. The regime did invite 128 foreign journalists to cover the event. But to their chagrin, they weren’t permitted to enter the conference hall except for a few minutes on the third and final day. In place of live broadcasts of the proceedings, excerpts were shown on North Korean TV in the evening.
Kim Jong-un delivered the opening and closing addresses with several speeches in between. Most of the speeches covered the same ground as the annual New Year editorial address, boasting of the party’s accomplishments and promising that 2016 would mark a turning point for the economy.
No new foreign policy initiatives were announced. A five-year economic “strategy” was mentioned, without any specifics. Discouragingly, the party once again called for a return to the so-called glory days of the 1950s when the North Korean economy, still very primitive, was making a rapid recovery from the total devastation of the Korean War. On the military front, the party’s promise that North Korea would be a “responsible nuclear weapons state” was a backhanded way of saying that the regime had no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons.
Kim Jong-un’s leadership title was upgraded from First Secretary to Chairman of the party, the same title his grandfather originally held. The appointment of a few new faces to top party positions didn’t signal a dramatic change in leadership. In short, content-wise, the status quo prevailed.
The Medium was the Message
The point of the congress was not to present new policies. Rather, it was to reinforce an image of leadership for the party and for the young Kim Jong-un. Perhaps the most succinct summation of the congress was offered by KCNA, the North Korean news agency: “The shining victory of the Seventh Congress of the WPK is the brilliant fruition of the leadership of Kim Jong-un.” For most of the congress, Kim was front and center. Televised scenes from inside the convention hall show the thousands of delegates, who have been likened to gogugi or “hand-raising robots,” applauding madly at appropriate times (they are taught to clap in a certain way, with their hands held chest-high).
The young Kim, barely over 30, heavy-set, dressed in a dark western suit and wearing glasses, looked amazingly like his grandfather. Kim’s low, gravely voice, droning hour after hour, was also just like his grandfather’s. The contrast with his father, who usually wore a drab workman’s jacket and avoided public speaking, couldn’t have been more vivid. Kim Jong-il’s era in North Korea is something people would like to forget, and Kim Jong-un is trying hard to skip over that page of history, embracing the North Korean version of the theme “Make the country great again.”
The very fact that the congress was convened communicates normality in a state that many outsiders expect will collapse at any moment. As a gesture to the international community, foreign journalists were invited into the country—a rare treat for them. To their disappointment, they weren’t permitted actually to cover the congress. Instead, they were shuttled around to various staged venues intended to show how modern North Korea has become. They were not fooled, and many of their reports, filed after they returned home, mixed skepticism with sarcasm, illustrating the old marketing adage, “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.”
Arguably, the most significant impact of the congress, and perhaps its primary purpose from the start, was to focus the people’s attention on something other than their dead-end lives. Most North Koreans still live in dire poverty and are surrounded by party-imposed restrictions that severely limit their life chances. Given the party’s long history of making empty promises, the Seventh Congress is not likely to divert their attention for more than a few days.
Dr. Kongdan (Katy) Oh is a Senior Asia Specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses. She was formerly a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Political Science Department of the RAND Corporation. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Board of Directors of the United States Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, and co-founder and former co-director of The Korea Club of Washington, D.C. She received her B.A. at Sogang University and an M.A. at Seoul National University. She subsequently earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation advisor was the renowned scholar, Professor Chalmers Johnson, and on his seventieth birthday she co-organized a Festschrift conference in San Diego. She has authored, co-authored, and edited eight books, published more than 30 research monographs, and numerous articles and book chapters. Her most recent book is The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, Second Edition (April 2015). This commentary originally appeared in Asia Times on May 20, 2016. We at JPRI are grateful for permission to publish it here.