GP Insights # 458, 16 January 2021
On 12 January 2021, North Korea ended its week-long 8th Party Congress. At the political gathering, Kim Jong-un addressed members of the Workers' Party and spoke about the current economic conditions of the country, future economic development goals, Inter-Korean relations, North Korean perception of the US and nuclear and defence policies. Kim called for greater nuclear war deterrence and maximum military power. His closing address, as cited by the country's official news agency KCNA states: "While strengthening our nuclear war deterrent, we need to do everything in order to build the most powerful military".
On 9 January, Kim commented on relations with the US and said: "Our external political activities must focus on our arch-enemy and the fundamental obstacle to our revolutionary development, the United States". On the Inter-Korean relations, he said: "the relations have now returned to the pre-Panmunjom Declaration (2018) state, and the dream of unification is now even further away".
What is the background?
First, the Party Congress. It is a rare political event that takes place every five years and is attended by over 7000 party members. The last Party Congress took place in May 2016, after 35 years and continued for four days. The Party Congress is considered one of North Korea's most important political events; domestic policies, foreign affairs and defence strategy for the next five years are determined during this gathering.
Second, North Korea's Eighth Party Congress held last week has another significance as it is the first political gathering after the pandemic. The country claims to have zero cases of the coronavirus; members who attended the Congress did not take any precautions such as wearing masks or maintaining social distance. The timing is notable considering the change in American politics and the return of the Democrats. This is also the first meeting after the Hanoi Summit failed in 2019 when President Trump and Kim Jong-un broke off all engagements and future denuclearization plans.
Third, the Party Congress emphasized on the US, inter-Korea relations and nuclear deterrence. While proclaiming the US as its biggest enemy, Kim has stated that any progress with it will be possible only when Washington decides to withdraw its hostile North Korea policy. Until such change, North Korea will adopt an "eye for an eye" strategy against the US. Also, there is less urgency on the Inter-Korean relations, as Kim asserted during the Conference that South Korea relations have returned to square one. He accused Seoul of overlooking the warnings against bringing powerful military equipment and stopping the military exercises with the US. He also called for stronger nuclear deterrence and increasing the military prowess, besides giving a detailed portfolio of nuclear weapons to acquire in the coming years. He said North Korea is willing to hold talks with the US but will not negotiate denuclearization. In the closing remarks, Kim has specified that they will strengthen their nuclear deterrence and build the strongest military at the same time.
Fourth, the unanimous election of Kim to the post of General Secretary of the Workers' Party. The only individuals to hold this title before him were Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. Kim's appointment as the General Secretary has solidified his power and authority. In the 2016 Party Congress, Kim was awarded the title of Party Chairman, elevating him from the post of First Secretary. There were also expectations about Kim's sister, who has also been steadily rising to power, but she was not promoted during the Congress.
Fifth, Kim's acceptance of domestic failures. During the Party Congress's opening address, Kim acknowledged that the previous economic development plans were unsuccessful and have underachieved in almost all sectors. At the seventh Party Congress, he identified three sectors that would be key to the country's development and aimed to make the country self-sufficient in food, energy and consumer goods.
What does it mean?
Kim's acceptance of the regime's economic failures can be seen as an attempt to prepare North Korea for the tough and trying times ahead. The country may face another severe famine due to crop failures after the 2020 floods. North Korea may have to depend immensely on international organizations to feed its population.
Following Kim's statements, the South Korean government has reaffirmed that they are ready to hold talks with North Korea anytime, anywhere and are even prepared to hold virtual meets. The establishment of peace and reunification of the Korean Peninsula is a complicated issue as it involves the two Koreas and the confrontation between the US and North Korea.
The future of the Korean Peninsula depends heavily on the next steps of the incoming Biden Administration. The US will have to deal with challenges on restarting dialogue with North Korea and promoting peace in the region.