At the end of October, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency announced that the ruling Workers’ Party will hold its next congress in May 2016. The congress last met 35 years ago, in October 1980, during the reign of Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
KCNA, with typical grandeur, announced that the meeting reflected “the demand of the party and the developing revolution that witness epoch-making changes in accomplishing the revolutionary cause of Juche, the cause of building a thriving socialist nation.”
There is no indication of what will be on the agenda, and Korea analysts know they will learn about that only when the congress finally meets. After a month of consideration, however, they have reached a basic consensus about what the holding of the congress means: that the party has consolidated power at the expense of the Korean People’s Army, and that Kim Jong Un, the country’s youngish ruler, has taken full political control of the regime.
Neither conclusion is unreasonable. Kim “would not hold a party congress if he were not certain he could control even the smallest detail,” says Ruediger Frank of the University of Vienna in an interview carried by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “The situation in North Korea looks relatively stable.”
Frank, perhaps the first Korea watcher to notice that the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011 resulted in a political resurgence of the party, makes a cogent case that Kim Jong Un has gained control of regime elements. Yet whether he is correct on this score or not—and a few analysts disagree—he is almost certainly right when he says the young ruler, by calling the congress, now believes himself to be politically “safe.”
Frank, one of the few willing to speculate about the congress agenda, also noted there is some possibility that Kim will use next May’s gathering to announce “a North Korean version of reform and opening—‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika.’”
Kim is in a tight spot, as Frank notes, because he has promised to improve livelihoods “and he needs to deliver.” Yet he cannot deliver without changing the nature of the fundamentally closed system his family has run for more than six decades. If he were to make an announcement of a dramatic opening of his country, he might use the platform of a party congress.
This line of reasoning is fueling optimism, but optimists have rarely been right when it comes to economic reform in North Korea. Various attempts over the years to make the country’s Stalinist system more flexible have all failed because there was no sustained commitment to reform, in other words, no commitment to loosening central control.
Kim has dabbled in reform himself, but not much has come of it. And the regime’s rough tactics against foreign investors, like Orascom Telecom, the Egyptian company that built a cell phone network, is a sure sign that fundamental change is not on the way. In the middle of November, the company announced that, despite holding a majority stake in the cell network, it had lost control of its investment, and it appears Kim Jong Un is in the final stages of grabbing the company’s assets. That was after Pyongyang effectively froze Orascom’s profits by refusing to allow repatriation under commercially reasonable terms.
Professor Frank argues that “North Korea has, at least on paper, almost all the necessary ingredients for another East Asian miracle,” lacking only finance, technology, and markets. The regime could use those for sure, but a miracle requires political change, too. North Korea needs a system that will permit liberalization over decades, not just in sporadic bursts. Unfortunately, truly “epoch-making” reform will not be on the agenda next May.