What does Eighth Party Congress of North Korea Reveal?
Prof Rajaram Panda

North Korea held the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party (WPK) after a gap of four and half years. It started on 5 January and lasted for unusually prolonged eight days until 12 January. The previous Congresses were held in 1946, 1948, 1956, 1961, 1970, 1980 and the last one in 2016. Though originally it was to be scheduled every five years, the trend shows that there is no fixed pattern about the year the Congress is to be held and all depends on the decision of the Worker’s Party under the control of the leader. Since the first Congress was held in August 1946, the pattern has changed every time.1 It might be relevant to examine what transpired in the Congress that was just concluded and issues discussed both pertaining to domestic and foreign relations’ issues.

Earlier there were speculations about the possible dates of the Congress as no definite dates were announced closer to the event. This was because during the 6th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held at the Central Committee of the Party office, the supreme general staff of the Korean revolution, on 19 August 2020 that the Eighth Party Congress shall be held in January 2021 but no date was announced.2 The Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is believed to have conducted the plenary meeting and took the decision. The country’s national carrier, Air Koryo, had grounded all its flights meant to prevent the spread of the novel virus but sudden air activities seen by intelligence agencies were indications that the Congress was going to be held shortly.

Situation in the County Prior to the Congress

It might be helpful to mention the background of the prevailing situation that preceded the Congress to get a broader perspective of what finally transpired during the Congress and the issued discussed. First, on the domestic front during the pandemic situation, the reclusive state demonstrated its pride to the world that it has successfully controlled the spread of the coronavirus by taking timely measures including enforcing of strict quarantine restrictions since early January 2020. In doing so, it quickly closed the border with China, bringing both informal and formal trade to a grinding halt, causing a deadly blow to the country’s economy. However its claim of building an “iron wall” against the pandemic and achieving 100 per cent success in preventing the spread of the virus without a loss of life is widely disputed.

China has remained its biggest trading partner and economic lifeline. Both countries maintain kind of lips and teeth relationship. Closing of its border dealt a telling blow to the country’s already-troubled economy as more than 90 per cent of its external trade goes through China. South Korea’s intelligence sources claimed that North Korea’s trade volume with China in the first 10 months of 2020 plunged by 75 per cent. North Korea’s factory operation rate also dropped to its lowest level since Kim took power.3

Agenda before Kim Jong-un

Ahead of the announcement of the party Congress, Kim Jong-un ordered in October 2020 the launch of the “80-day campaign” to achieve the country’s national and economic goals by the end of December.4 How such ambitious target was fixed at a time when the economy was riling under the impact of global sanctions, virtual trade blockade with China by sealing the border, and slow recovery process from typhoon damage, defies logic. Despite such difficult situation, the regime boasted of undertaking and completing massive construction of houses in the northern border town of Samjiyon and factories in other areas. The regime boasted and sent message to its people and to the world by highlighting such success stories ahead of the Congress that no sanctions and other punitive measures against it for pursuing the nuclear programmes can affect it and compel it to change course. The primary objective was to tell the world that the country has achieved dramatic turnaround from its dire economic trajectory. Hidden behind such boastful claims was the opposite with the possible intention not to demoralise the people and delegates prior to the Congress. This also indicated that the Congress would be a low-key affair unlike the 2016 Party Congress which was held with much pomp and ceremony. But as it transpired subsequently it was a much bigger event where the importance of Kim Jong-un’s role was much more enhanced.

The Party Congress is North Korea’s biggest political conference. The main focus of the past congresses had been to set new political and economic priorities, reshuffle top officials and review past projects. As said, revival of the country’s economy was uppermost in Kim’s mind during the Congress. Rare for Kim to admit failure he hinted in August 2020 about failure in meeting the country’s growth goals, which is why a new five-year economic plan was unveiled during the Congress. Whether Kim openly admits about the precarious situation in the country’s economy, there is no denying that Kim was disturbed about the country’s frail economy since the late 1990s and thought to get the economy back on track.

Major Highlights of the Congress

One major decision that was taken during the politically important party Congress was to elevate Kim Jong-un to the rank of general secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea on the sixth day i.e. on 11 January, a title posthumously reserved for his father Kim Jong Il.5 This seat had remained vacant for nine years after his father died. Prior to this, Kim Jong-un was just the chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and his father — Kim Jong Il — was named the symbolic “eternal general secretary” months after his death in December 2011.

China, North Korea’s all weather friend, was happy with this news. Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee (CPCCC) sent a congratulatory message to Kim Jong-un on his elevation as the general secretary of the WPK and also called for strong relations between the two countries.6 He also extended warm regards to Kim and the WPK Central Committee on behalf of the CPCCC and himself.

For Xi, Kim’s re-election was a demonstration of trust, support, and expectation held by all WPK members and the DPRK people. For Beijing, it was an opportunity to strive to fulfil economic and social development goals and push for new and greater achievements in the socialist cause of the DPRK. Xi was ready to carve a new course for Sino-DPRK relations to ensure the two sides remain committed to the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue, and jointly safeguard regional peace, stability, development, and prosperity, so as to deliver more benefits to both countries and their people.7

What does Kim’s elevation mean to the WPK and its status? In short, it would mean that Kim will lead with a party-centred system that the regime believes will help Kim further cements his authority. Not that Kim’s existing control over the country was less but with his elevation his regime gets stronger heft and legitimacy now.8 Most socialist states, including China, do not use the chairman position. Having consolidated his position already as the Chairman of the WPK, Kim’s elevation would mean from now on that he shall have a free hand to use a party-controlled central system “making the party's ruling practices more functional in his rule”, observes Hong Min of the Korea Institute for National Unification. Accordingly, the previous party rules adopted in the 2016 Party Congress had to be amended, renaming the official titles of Chairman, Vice Chairman into chief secretary, secretary and vice-secretary. The organisational structure of the party also had to be rechristened. The Executive Policy Council was changed into Secretariat and Executive Policy Office into Sub-Secretariat.

Status of Kim Yo-jong

A major highlight of the Party Congress was the demotion of Kim’s influential sister, Kim Yo-jong, which raised questions over whether it signalled any change in her status in the top echelons of power. She was not listed as a member nor as an alternate member of the party’s politburo. This was contrary to the assessment of South Korean intelligence authorities which thought Kim Yo-jong who was “the de facto No.2 leader” steering overall state affairs and therefore, would get a higher position in the party hierarchy. This development is being perceived in a manner that she is getting a break from her job of handling state affairs with South Korea and the United States.9 But it is premature to determine Kim Yo-jong’s future role given that she is a member of the North’s “royal” family and allowed by her brother to exercise greater influence in state affairs, including her hardline stance against South Korea and the United States. It was she who ordered the blowing up of an inter-Korean liaison office in June 2020 in anger over leafleting campaign by South Korean activists and accompanied her brother in all his important international engagements. She had accompanied her brother at three inter-Korean summits, including the historic summit talks at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom in April 2018.

It is possible that she has been kept away from the forefront this time as situation in the United States is changing with a new President in office and possible leadership change in South Korea in 2022. When the situation is felt appropriate, she could be leapfrogged into the limelight again. She also led the North Korean delegation to Seoul at the February 2018 Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang and shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. When rumour surfaced about her brother’s absence from public view for some time in 2020 on health grounds, it was speculated that she could take over if her brother was incapacitated or had expired.10

Given that Kim Jong-un’s children are young and cannot be groomed now as successors, the leader must have thought of grooming his sister to maintain the royal bloodline for his succession. Whenever the leader decides, he can always create a new position for his sister, elevate her status and delegate authority to decide matters. According to Professor Leif-Eric Easley at Ewha Womens University in Seoul, Kim's path of promotions is "not linear", and Kim Yo-jong “comes in and out of prominence and her title tends not to match her importance. She is a confidant and image consultant for her brother as well as a trusted pair of eyes and ears embedded in the North Korean elite".11

That Kim Yo-jong has not lost any of her powerful images could be discernible from her statement on South Korea wherein she hurled insults at Seoul in scathing state media remarks, calling South Koreans “top-class idiots”, a day after she was seen to have been demoted and was presenting herself as the state’s foreign policy mouthpiece.12 This indicates that she shall be assuming greater power in the coming months.

Convening of Assembly

Days after the Congress proceedings ended, it was announced that the Supreme Assembly shall meet to discuss what was put forth during the party congress. The items to be taken up for discussion included organizational issues, adopting a law on the five-year plan for national economic development and budget and accounts for the 2020 state budget, as well as the one for the following fiscal year.13 The reshuffling of the State Affairs Commissions and the Cabinet were also expected to be taken up.

Policy towards the United States

Being aware that there would be a new administration in the United States when Joe Biden takes over as the next President, Kim unveiled what his policy towards the US would be during Biden administration. It is premature to say specifically what Kim’s policy towards the US or Biden’s policy towards North Korea would be. One could expect a departure from Trump’s strategy of engaging Kim in Biden administration, which could lead Kim to carry out some sort a provocation to put pressure on Biden with a view to obtain some sanctions relief.14 It is equally worth-watching if South Korean President Moon Jae-in would continue his “strategic patience” and continues making efforts in seeking peace with the North.

So far North Korea’s state media refrained from commenting on Biden’s election victory. When North Korea revealed a monster missile in October at a military parade15 but refrained from indulging in any rhetoric, it was presumed that it would undertake a test launch soon. That has not happened. Pyongyang’s low-key stance since the military parade could also suggest that Kim might have left the door open for more diplomacy, both with the Biden and Moon administrations. It remains to be seen how Pyongyang calibrates its policies after the Congress. It could have two options: re-engage with the international community or slump further into international isolation and relentlessly pursue its nuclear and missile development programmes. There could be no clarity in the matter pertaining to a country such as North Korea that remains an enigma and therefore much would remain in the realm of speculation.

But the signs are not propitious to harbour any optimism as during the party Congress, Kim vowed not to use nuclear weapons unless North Korea’s sovereignty is threatened but called Washington the “biggest, main enemy”. Kim vowed to keep developing “long range nuclear strike capability” to deter any threats to sovereignty.16 The leaders at the Congress issued a “historic report” on the country’s future. Besides his resolve to continue developing nuclear weapons, Kim emphasised the need for the country to acquire new capabilities, such as solid-fuel international ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles, and tactical nuclear weapons. Hereafter, return to nuclear testing is a clear possibility. It may be recalled that North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests, latest being in September 2017, but it feels the need for developing more tactical nuclear weapons. William Gallo writes: “Tactical nuclear weapons are smaller, more mobile and meant to be used on the battlefield, as opposed to larger strategic nuclear weapons that are designed to inflict mass destruction.”17 Having failed to get any sanctions relief despite three summits with Trump, Kim feels that there are compelling reasons not to be bound by self-imposed pause on nuclear and long-range missile tests, thereby signalling fresh tensions in the Korean Peninsula. The transitions in the United States could be the most ideal time for Kim to demonstrate its military capabilities in expectation to gain some leverage in future negotiations with Washington.

There is a strong possibility that Pyongyang may come out with a major provocation by way of missile tests in the coming months, and if that happens, it would pose an early foreign policy challenge for Biden. For a start, Kim would be seeking an early appointment with his teams to negotiate, lifting of travel ban and other relaxations in expectation of having a different outcome. For Biden’s part, an early initiative to have working-level talks could check Kim from any major provocation. After all, Biden never endorsed Trump’s personal outreach approach without adequate preparations for the possible outcomes and therefore felt Trump’s strategy to be ineffective and just aimed at making media headlines. As it transpired, the three summits that Trump had with Kim resulted in no outcome and the nuclear issue remained where it was before. However, Kim may not take kindly Biden’s remarks of labelling him as a “thug” and “tyrant” during his election rallies, which is why North Korean state media slammed Biden as an “imbecile”, a “fool of low IQ” and a “rabid dog”. If this is the perception, one can imagine how the US-North Korea relations shall develop during the Biden administration.

Options for Biden

Based on the prevailing perceptions, it is advisable that the Biden administration must act quickly to prevent North Korea from setting the stage by creating a crisis. The Korea Economic Institute of America (KEIA) has advised the Biden administration not to abandon the initiative started by Trump and continue engaging Pyongyang on the denuclearization of the peninsula because choosing a different approach could harden Kim’s stance and might lead to closing all doors.18 It is to be seen if Biden makes the first move in reaching out to Kim. If Biden remains silent, Kim is most likely to stage some provocations for Biden as his ultimate goal is to avail some sanctions relief without compromising with his committed policy on the nuclear and missile development programmes. The KEIA has recommended Biden to see if he could build upon some of the issues discussed between Trump and Kim at the Hanoi summit of February 2019. In doing so, South Korea’s cooperation would be indispensable as reaching out to Pyongyang bypassing Seoul would be a tough task for the Biden administration.

Making the first move and with a view to put pressure on Biden even before he officially assumed office, Pyongyang held a military parade after the party Congress was over; it was as a clear warning to the incoming Biden administration. The objective was to remind Biden that North Korea’s nuclear programme shall remain on track and without any sanctions’ relief; no next move can be expected.19 It was therefore, Kim unveiled a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), labelled as the Pukkguksong-5, an upgrade version of the Pukguksong-4, thereby sending a warning to the Biden administration.20 North Korea’s development of tactical nuclear weapons and the newly unveiled missile could fly 1,000 km pose a clear threat to America’s two allies Japan and South Korea. The intention of doing so is to secure an arms control deal with the US.

It remains to be explained why North Korea displayed its SLBM technology as it currently does not have a functional submarine capable of shooting ballistic missiles while submerged. Vipin Narang, a nuclear specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is of the opinion that these developments are setting the stage for a solid fuel ICBM.21 Kim has plan to develop an ICBM using solid fuel, which could make it more easily transportable and needs less time to prepare for launch. According to Lt. Gen. Chun In-bum from South Korea, an expert on North Korea’s weapons programme, with that capability North Korea “will either have a second-strike capability (the ability after being struck by a nuclear missile to strike back) or to intimidate the United States and its policies toward the Korean Peninsula”.22 What seems clear is that North Korea’s advancement of its nuclear programme aims to include a submarine-launched ballistic missile with nuclear warheads. It does not seem to be an easy ride for the North, however. This is because of the limitations and challenges that Pyongyang faces in developing such a capability. Perfecting such a capability or even to produce a single nuclear-powered submarine is not easy. There could also be infrastructure and expertise needs, besides engineers who could build, train and operationally deploy a submarine force capable of posing the US in risk. Biden has to factor in what would be his strategy in dealing with North Korea given the obduracy and non-compromising stance of Kim on the nuclear issue. For his, separating nuclear issue from sanctions relief is just not acceptable. Kim was frustrated that despite he met Trump three times the ice on nuclear issue could not be broken. It is to be seen how Biden could be different in dealing with North Korea. Rest is between Biden and Kim.

  1. Srinivasan Ramani, “Workers Party of Korea | The party of Kims”, The Hindu, 9 January 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/workers-party-of-korea-the-party-of-kims/article33538790.ece?utm_source=morning_brew&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Newsletter
  2. “Political Decision to Be Recorded as Another Special Event in Militant Course of Glorious WPK On Convening 8th Congress of WPK 6th Plenary Meeting of 7th Central Committee of WPK Held”, 20 August 2020, http://rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2020-08-20-0003
  3. “N Korea’s Kim reviews agenda for congress in early January”, 31 December 2020, https://www.dailyexcelsior.com/n-koreas-kim-reviews-agenda-for-congress-in-early-january/
  4. “North Korea touts achievements of 80-day campaign ahead of party congress”, 1 January 2021, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210101001700325
  5. Won-Gi Jung, “Kim Jong Un named general secretary — a title reserved for his late father”, 10 January 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/01/kim-jong-un-named-general-secretary-a-title-reserved-for-his-late-father/. Also see, “Kim Jong Un emerges General Secretary of Workers’ Party of Korea on ON JANUARY 11” https://www.vanguardngr.com/2021/01/kim-jong-un-emerges-general-secretary-of-workers-party-of-korea/
  6. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2021/01/103_302314.html
  7. https://www.vanguardngr.com/2021/01/kim-jong-un-emerges-general-secretary-of-workers-party-of-korea/
  8. Kang Seung-woo, “North Korean leader seeks to build party-centered regime”, 11 January 2021, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2021/01/103_302296.html
  9. “Demotion of North Korean leader's sister raises questions over her status”, 11 January 2021, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2021/01/103_302276.html
  10. See, Rajaram Panda, “known and Unknown Facts about North Korea: Is Kim Jong-un still alive?”, 29 April 2020, https://www.vifindia.org/article/2020/april/29/known-and-unknown-facts-about-north-korea-is-kim-jong-un-still-alive
  11. Quoted in Ibid.
  12. Jeongmin Kim “’Top-class idiots’: Why a demoted Kim Yo Jong still has the power to slam Seoul”, 14 January 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/01/top-class-idiots-why-a-demoted-kim-yo-jong-still-has-the-power-to-slam-seoul/
  13. “N. Korea to Convene Supreme People's Assembly Following Party Congress”, 13 January 2021, http://world.kbs.co.kr/service/news_view.htm?lang=e&Seq_Code=158884
  14. Shim Kyu-seok, “North schedules rare ruling party congress for early January”, 30 December 2020, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2020/12/30/national/northKorea/North-Korea-8th-Party-Congress-Kim-Jongun/20201230172400531.html. Also see, “North Korean Party Congress Primer”, 38 North, 2 December 2020, https://www.38north.org/2020/12/partycongress122220/
  15. Rajaram Panda, “Why US must worry about Kim's 'monster missile'”, 13 October 2020, https://www.rediff.com/news/column/why-us-must-worry-about-kims-monster-missile/20201013.htm
  16. William Gallo, “North Korea Calls US 'Biggest Enemy,' Vows to Develop More Nukes”, 8 January 2021, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/dprk/2021/dprk-210108-voa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e2968%2eon0ao069c5%2e2qt4. Also see, Jeongmin Kim and Kelly Kasulis, “North Korea calls the US its ‘biggest enemy’ and vows to keep developing nukes”, 8 January 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/01/north-korea-calls-the-us-its-biggest-enemy-and-vows-to-keep-developing-nukes/
  17. Ibid.
  18. “Biden must act quickly before N. Korea creates crisis: think tank”, 13 January 2021, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20210113000109
  19. Kang Seung-woo, “Military parade pressures Biden to take North Korea seriously”, Korea Times, 15 January 2021, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2021/01/103_302541.html
  20. William Gallo, “North Korea Shows Off New Submarine-Launched Missile at Military Parade”, 15 January 2021, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/dprk/2021/dprk-210115-voa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e2974%2eon0ao069c5%2e2r00
  21. Opinion quoted in ibid.
  22. Opinion quoted in ibid.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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