North Korea’s Historic Workers Congress Party: The Whats And Whys, Explained

North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party has gone full steam ahead to ready itself for the 7th congress, scheduled to begin on Friday. The event will be held at the Palace of Culture and will be the first full meeting after decades, of thousands of high-office candidates including delegates and observers of the Worker Party, and is therefore special.

Preparations for the high level event have been on full swing. According to North Korea’s state media, the Workers’ Party initiated a “70-day speed campaign” in February to prepare for the party congress. This 70-day campaign has been a characteristic of the Kim family since the 1970s.

Under this campaign the population is mobilised to work long, unceasing hours under tight controls to complete infrastructure projects and increase industrial and commercial outputs to make good the expenses of the congress.

The people have been working non stop for 70 days without any holidays, fixing up the city,…they have repaired sidewalks, done intensive cleaning, painted the buildings in bright colors and strung up hundreds of red Workers’ Party flags on street lamps all this to the tune of patriotic songs to rev them up.

They have put up slogans like “Great Party, Mother Party”. One banner hung in the city reads: “Let’s open up the broad avenue to build a thriving nation in the year of the 7th Worker’s Party Congress!”

north korea workers congress party
Photo credit: Reuters

The facade of the April 25th Palace of Culture has been draped with red banners with the party symbol- a calligraphy brush, hammer and sickle. Children have been practising a synchronized routine waving red flags, while vans with loudspeakers roam the city to broadcast propaganda about the event.

Security has been tightened in the city, with increased inspections and property searches. Free movement in and out of the capital has been forbidden, according to a source in South Pyongyang Province cited by the Daily NK, an online newspaper based in Seoul, South Korea.

Thousands of foreign journalists have been invited to the event though their movements will be strictly monitored. Only the state media will give out any information.

North Korea Workers Congress Party
North Korea gets ready ahead of its Workers Congress Party, the biggest political gathering in 3 decades.

What’s it all about?

The Congress is a gathering of all the people of influence in North Korea, around the country. The meeting will set out the aims and goals of this nation of 25 million over the next five to 10 years. It can also usher in changes in the Workers’ Party charter, which lays out how the organization is structured.

What can be expected?

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.”

The Workers’ Party is expected to showoff an image of unified strength. It is an opportunity for the party bigwigs to boast about recent achievements and to lavish praise and rhetoric on Kim, the Supreme Leader.

It will also elect a new central committee, which in turn appoints the party’s Politburo and presidium.

Mr. Kim is expected to deliver a speech on Friday reviewing the 36 years since the country held its last party congress in 1980.

What can be expected from Kim?

What exactly Kim Jong-un wishes to do at this congress is very unclear.

It is however expected that Kim Jong-un will boast of his his successes especially the recent test firing of missiles and the improved economy.

Kim Jong Un

He might reshuffle his cabinet, purge the party of seniors and bring in younger people who have been more loyal to him. Major changes to the Workers’ Party could be on the agenda, including adding more women to leadership positions.

He might reveal much-needed major new economic policies or reforms.

Most of all he is expected to promote his so-called Byungjin policy, which calls for simultaneously achieving a nuclear arsenal and economic development.

It is also expected that Kim may conduct some sort of a missile test or even a fifth nuclear test during the congress to add a little zing to the party and impress people about the country’s military prowess and the strength of his leadership.

It would also demonstrate to other countries that North Korea has the will and the means to use nuclear weapons to defend itself and for its own advancement.

“It is roughly the equivalent of a political party convention that we have in the United States,” Michael Madden, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said.

“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.”

North Korea has held only seven party congresses in its history. During the last one, in 1980, Kim’s father – Kim Jong-il – was confirmed as the successor to the state’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

The last party congress in 1980 lasted about four days, and it is expected that this brouhaha would also last for 4 days at least.

Why congress?

China and the Soviet Union used congresses to announce major new policy changes. They were originally convened every few years in the USSR, with each one hailed as a major historical and ideological event. North Korea has copied that and has been following a similar format.

The previous congresses:

The very first congress was in 1946. The Communist Party of North Korea merged with the New People’s Party to form the Workers’ Party of North Korea, the group in power today. The Rodong Sinmun newspaper was also established as the Party’s official mouthpiece.
However, at the time, the Korean communist organisations were still controlled by the Soviets.

The second congress was held in 1948 to divide Korea into two independent states, North Korea and South Korea. North Korea chose the hammer and sickle for its new emblem, and since that day in March 1948, the emblem remains the same. South Korea chose to keep the old Korean flag of Great Extremes as it’s own.

The third congress in 1956 was a time of anxiety for Kim II-sung. The congress was held soon after Soviet Union’s 20th congress in which Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Joseph Stalin, and mentioned the “restoration of Leninist norms of collective leadership”, a veiled attack on Kim’s one man rule. In August that year opposition tried to remove Kim from power but were crushed.

The first conference (conferences are only slightly different in pomp and show) in 1958 Kim tried to purge his party of any opposition by expelling dissenters. However, he was later forced to undo that motion by the Soviets and Chinese. Later, when Moscow and Beijing’s attention was no longer focused of Pyongyang as relations between them began to deteriorate, Kim was free to act as he pleased – and the opposition was, once and for all, removed.

(Peter Ward, a scholar who has studied this conference in great depths, suggests that North Korea was probably influenced by China for choosing a conference as a model for purge. In 1955, the Communist Party of China removed Rao Shushi and Gao Gang for opposing Mao Zedong – and it was also conducted at a conference, not on a congress.)

The fourth congress held in May 1961 was the first after the DPRK became politically independent from the Soviet Union. The Party’s was now fully comprised of Kim’s old friends and followers (largely former Manchurian guerrillas). The personality cult was not yet constructed but the age of political factions had been eradicated.

The second conference, in 1966 and what happened therein, remains more or less a mystery as no records of it are found in the public domain. Some reports suggest that some high ranking figures were purged and that militarisation of the economy was announced.

This conference also started the process of Kim’s personality cult. He had some of his loyal comrades, known as the “Kapsan faction” purged and in April 1967 announced the creation of the “monolithic ideological system”. North Korea was now transformed into a fully autocratic and repressive state.

The fifth congress was held in 1970. Kim delivered a speech about the “three revolutions” – ideological, technological and cultural, which were to be implemented.

North Korea claims that it was at this congress that Kim Jong-II, Kim Il-sung’s son, introduced the iconic badges featuring his father’s face, which all North Koreans have to wear to this day.

The sixth and – to date – last congress of the Workers’ Party convened in 1980. Its main purpose was to present the heir to the throne – Kim Jong-II. However, it was not until 1981 that Kim Jr came to be officially and openly presented as his father’s successor.

Many foreign guests attended this congress – mostly from African countries. Perhaps the most notable visitor was Robert Mugabe, who, 36 years later, still rules Zimbabwe.

The third conference in 2010 was when Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un, officially appeared in the Rodong Sinmun named as the successor.

Kim Jong-un was given the rank of a four-star general and appointed vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission. When his father died just a year later, Pyongyang elites rushed to crown their new leader the “sun of the nation” – and a new personality cult was born.

The fourth conference, held in 2012, was about the ascension of Kim Jong-un. Kim was promoted to first secretary of the party and chairman of the Central Military Commission, and first chairman of the National Defence Committee.

His late father, meanwhile, was proclaimed the eternal chairman of the National Defence Commission and the eternal general secretary of the party.

What next?

Will Kim Jong-un announce any major political or economic reforms nobody knows. In his 4 years of power his reforms have been meagre. The only reforms he’s implemented have been to let workers on collective farms keep a part of their harvest, and giving autonomy to some state-run enterprises.

On the international front Kim has antagonised China, and Moscow; allowed relations with South Korea to slide to the point of shutting down the shared Kaesong Industrial Complex, and united American politicians into punitive policy against himself.

He’s also exerted stricter control over the country. Censorship, pervasive propaganda, a near total ban on the internet and foreign media for his citizens, closed borders and the use of concentration camps make for a prison camp like environment for his people.

He has accelerated his nuclear weapons programme. Analysts say that Mr. Kim’s byungjin policy would be reaffirmed as the official party line, though reviving the North’s moribund economy while the country is under sanctions is a difficult prospect. The UN has imposed sanctions on Korea for carrying out banned nuclear tests.

Kim has said the congress will present “an ambitious blueprint” for his nation. What that would be remains to be seen.

“The congress is an occasion for Kim Jong-un to officially declare at home and abroad that his era has arrived,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “He will boast about his nuclear weapons and the security they provide as his biggest achievement, and then will exhort his country to focus on nuclear development.”

“Kim Jong-un will never stop nuclear weapons development,” said Chang Yong-seok, an analyst at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. “He does not consider economic reform without nuclear weapons.”

Mr. Kim’s father, who came to power in 1994, adopted an emergency “military first” rule. He sought nuclear weapons in defiance of United Nations sanctions, telling his people that the weapons would protect their independence and dignity from “the American imperialists.”

Mr. Kim was still in his late 20s when the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011 made him leader. He had more than 100 senior party officials or generals, including his own uncle, executed. Thousands more were demoted or banished. He also gained party control over the military.

At home his image is of a strong young leader able to arm his country with nuclear weapons. In recent months, North Korea has tried to bolster that image by carrying out a flurry of missile tests. It also conducted two more nuclear tests while satellites were launched into orbit, the most recent in February, by using rockets widely believed to be a cover for developing an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Jeong Joon-hee, a South Korean government spokesman, said he suspected that the North Korean military pressed ahead with tests that were doomed to failure, to help glorify Mr. Kim’s image ahead of the party congress.

One thing is certain. The congress in all likelihood will serve to cement Kim Jung-un’s status as supreme leader. That’s what it’s all about anyways.

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