The topic on the last day of the eighth congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which closed after eight days, was a stronger military. The eighth party congress was at the center of attention as a forum where North Korea released its five-year economic development plan and its strategy on South Korea and the United States in response to the launch of a new administration in Washington. But the North failed to present any new domestic and foreign policies other than its existing policy to independently pursue economic recovery and only reaffirmed its determination to pursue technological advances in its nuclear program. This has led some experts to assess that Kim Jong-un has partially retreated even in the reform measures that his government had previously pledged.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un again stressed nuclear war deterrence and stronger military power in his concluding remarks at the eighth party congress on January 12 and said, “We will advance firmly grasping the task of further strengthening the quality of our national defense capability as an important task.” Chairman Kim acknowledged his failure in economic policies and stressed the solution of economic problems throughout the party congress, but his words also show that there was not much progress in the past five years other than the achievements in the military.
The eighth party congress was the second longest since the fifth party congress in 1970. Unlike in the past, North Korea did not release the full text of the decisions made during the congress or the general report on state affairs. Many experts point out that based on the media coverage what is notable is that North Korea seems to have “returned” to the seventh party congress five years ago in 2016.
In particular, the declaration to pursue advances in nuclear weapons was in a way intended to pressure the U.S. with the launch of the Joe Biden administration in mind, but in fact, it also showed that North Korea has returned to simultaneously pursuing developments in its economy as well as its nuclear capability--something that the North had declared in the seventh party congress. The decision to concentrate all state resources on economic development, which the North had presented in April 2018, was not stipulated in the latest party charter. Park Won-gon, a professor of international affairs at Handong Global University pointed out, “Not only has North Korea returned to the parallel pursuit of economic and nuclear development, it has changed the order and has put nuclear power in front of the economy.”
The five-year economic development plan was simply an extension of the North’s plans to independently pursue economic development and to face its challenges head on, which it had stressed since the collapse of negotiations with the U.S. And as for socialist commerce, North Korea announced plans to actually tighten state control. When closing the party congress, Chairman Kim Jong-un emphasized the unified command and management of the economy by the state and said, “Even after the party congress, we will take strong actions to control any attempt to undermine the unified guidance of the state under the excuse of ‘special conditions,’ regardless of at which level such attempts are made.”
Kim Jong-un’s new title as the party’s general secretary, the resurrection of the Secretariat, and the message emphasizing the elimination of non-socialist ideas are also in line with the move to tighten his grasp over order inside the party and to strengthen control. Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification said, “Kim Jong-un wore a suit at the party congress in 2016, but this time, he wore a Mao jacket, which is symbolic,” and explained, “Due to the failure in his attempt at change in the past five years, he has returned to a somewhat conservative tendency.”
As for North Korea’s relations with the U.S. and South Korea, North Korea tossed the ball to its opponents by presenting preconditions for the U.S. and the South, the withdrawal of hostile policies and the suspension of ROK-US joint military exercises, respectively. A senior official at the Ministry of Unification spoke on North Korea’s message on foreign affairs and said, “I think they left the door open to various possibilities,” and added, “Their comments seem to be strong, but at the same time, they controlled the level of their comments.”
For the time being, North Korea is expected to try and ease the pressure from international sanctions by strengthening its solidarity with socialist states, such as China and Russia. It is likely to try and secure “space for survival” amidst the conflicts between the U.S. and China. The Chinese Communist Party also displayed its close ties with North Korea by being the first to send a congratulatory message on the opening day of the eighth party congress.
Chairman Kim immediately replied to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s letter congratulating Kim on his appointment as general secretary and said, “We will put in all our efforts to strengthen and develop friendly ties (between North Korea and China), directly related to the interests of the two parties and the people of the two states.”
ⓒ 경향신문 & 경향닷컴(www.khan.co.kr), 무단전재 및 재배포 금지
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