North Korea holds its Workers' Party Congress on Friday — the first time this apex political meeting has happened since 1980. It brings together Kim Jong Un and the reclusive state’s governing elite, and security is tight: movement in and out of the capital, Pyongyang, has been restricted, while inspections and property sweeps have been ramped up, according to local media. There are also persistent rumors that a fifth nuclear test may sprinkle a little shock and awe over proceedings.
Here’s what you need to know:
What's it all about?
The Workers’ Party Congress is a gathering of all the people of influence in North Korea, including delegates and observers elected at lower-level party meetings around the country. The meeting sets out the direction and priorities of this nation of 25 million over the next five to 10 years. It can also amend the Workers' Party charter, which lays out how the organization is structured and how it relates to the different organs of state.
But above all, it’s a backslapping exercise for party bigwigs to boast about recent achievements and to lavish praise on Kim, the Supreme Leader. Reports from the China–North Korea border indicate that a trove of luxury goods have been smuggled in to divide up amongst attendees as gifts.
“They do political choreography very well,” says John Delury, associate professor of East Asian studies at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul. “And it will be impressive at least for their own people in North Korea.”
Kim hadn’t even been born the last time North Korea held a Workers' Party Congress, and this gathering is very much about cementing his personal authority over the state. It also comes at a time when North Korea is moving back toward what the leadership would like to consider stability.
The 1990s brought a series of existential crises for North Korea: starting with the fall of the Soviet Union and other European socialist nations, then the death of founding father Kim Il Sung in 1994, and not least a horrific famine that claimed up to 3 million lives and hit a nadir in 1997. All this had Pyongyang “operating in crisis-management mode,” says Daniel Pinkston, lecturer in international relations with Troy University in Seoul.
This political angst essentially continued throughout the reign of Kim Jong Il to when his son Kim Jong Un took over four years ago. Since then, adds Pinkston, “there’s been a learning process and they want to return things to ‘normal.’”
Of course, you wouldn’t bet against the looming presidential elections in both South Korea and the U.S. also figuring in the choice of timing.
What’s the significance?
There’s unlikely to be any grand policy shift unveiled. However, a host of personnel changes are expected — both from the necessity of replacing aging comrades, as well as to reward figures deemed especially loyal to Kim Jong Un.
Many analysts expect there to be a refocusing on economic priorities — a prospect that would please China, above all, because it would provide Beijing with a platform of engagement and negotiation. Already under Kim, the economy has significantly improved — though by any absolute standards remains woeful. The state has stopped meddling in the market and allowed low-level private enterprise to flourish (albeit taxed and stringently regulated). People no longer appear to be starving in large numbers — although verification of that is difficult — and there are enough cars on the streets of Pyongyang for locals to even refer to "rush hour."
Speaking ahead of a U.N. climate change conference in New York, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong said the congress would look to “advance the pace of economic building,” “improve the people's living standards” and “strengthen our national defense capabilities.”
Regarding the latter, it would be entirely characteristic for Little Kim to launch a fifth nuclear test while the whole world is watching.
What will Washington be looking for?
A nuclear test will obviously capture the headlines and overshadow any other developments. It would also irk North Korea’s main, if not only, sponsor, China, which accounts for around 90% of Pyongyang’s trade, buying its main export, coal, and sending back around half a million tons of oil each year.
China’s relationship with its dysfunctional neighbor has become increasingly strained, though, and Beijing even signed up to ramped-up U.N. sanctions in March following Pyongyang's latest nuclear and missile tests. Beijing is key to curbing Kim’s belligerence, though it has traditionally expressed skepticism that squeezing tactics work. “The Chinese position is that if you back the North Koreans into the corner and put a knife to their throat, they’ll just blow up the room,” says Delury.
Also of interest is whom, if anyone, Beijing chooses to send to its recalcitrant neighbor’s party of a generation. Latest indications were no one: asked whether China had received an invitation or would be sending a delegate to the Congress, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told an April 27 press meeting: "That is a major event in the political life of the party and people of the DPRK [North Korea]."
What’s the big picture?
The battle to rein in North Korea is hamstrung by the geopolitical rivalry between China and the U.S. The existence of North Korea is of strategic benefit to Beijing, given the alternative is likely a unified Korean Peninsula ruled from Seoul that would be a staunch ally of Washington. Then there's the financial burden of the millions of refugees that would torrent into China if North Korea collapsed.
However, a nuclear-armed North Korea is clearly not in Beijing’s best interests, especially when this boosts South Korean calls to develop its own nuclear deterrent. More immediately, the U.S. intends to deploy the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-ballistic-missile system in South Korea to counter the North’s nuclear capability, much to the displeasure of both Beijing and Moscow.
According to Cheong Seong-chang, senior fellow at South Korean think tank the Sejong Institute, THAAD concerns China much more than a North Korean nuclear missile as it threatens Beijing’s designs for the resource-rich South China Sea. “THAAD would pit China against America in a power struggle over the South China Sea,” he says. “China believes that the development of THAAD puts its hegemony at risk.”
China will be hoping that the Congress brings a refocus on economic reform and a mellowing of bellicose rhetoric. This would bolster the argument for engagement, and allow China to frame Washington as the aggressor if it decides to push ahead with THAAD regardless. While Pyongyang has historically excelled at exactly this sort of brinkmanship, a bout of saber rattling is just as likely.