Parsing Kim Jong-un’s partyFrom May 6 to 9, the Workers’ Party of Korea held its seventh congress in Pyongyang. Despite the party rule that they should be held every four years, these congresses are in practice held at much longer intervals — the most recent congress was in 1980 and the one before that in 1970. Because they tend to mark off distinct periods of North Korea’s history, it is interesting to compare this congress with the sixth, which took place in October 1980.
It is striking how far North Korea’s relative position has gone backward since then. At the time of the sixth party congress in 1980, North Korea’s economy had already been overtaken by that of South Korea but not by very much — the two Korean states were still economic rivals. Now, of course, the South Korean economy towers over that of the North. In 1980, North Korea was a respected member of the nonaligned movement, and 177 delegations from 118 friendly countries attended the congress and presented greetings. In 2016, no delegations were invited.
I remember the 1980 congress well, as I was a diplomat in Beijing at the time, from where many of the national delegations who went to Pyongyang set out. On their return to Beijing, diplomatic colleagues told me that North Korean protocol had badly underestimated the time it would take for representatives to present their messages of congratulations to Kim Il Sung, so that delegations were left waiting for hours after their appointed times to present their messages.
One African minister who led his country’s delegation gave up waiting and returned to his guest house. At 2:00 a.m., a North Korean protocol officer, who had finally reached him on their attendance list, knocked on the door of his room, and he had to present his message of congratulations to Kim Il Sung in his pajamas, half-asleep in the corridor of the guesthouse.
Although there were no official foreign delegations in 2016, there were many foreigners, as 128 journalists from 12 countries were allowed to visit. Just as protocol mishandled foreign delegations in 1980, so did they mishandle journalists in 2016.
First, because the media was not allowed into the congress hall except briefly as Kim Jong-un was confirmed as chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, they got frustrated and sent back all kinds of less than complimentary stories.
Secondly, the atmosphere was not improved by the treatment of a BBC journalist who was in Pyongyang accompanying a delegation of Nobel laureates. He was interrogated for hours about articles that had displeased North Korea and made to sign an “apology.”
Thirdly, not all journalists were treated equally. While the Western journalists were cooped up away from the hall, at least one Chinese journalist — from the Global Times — was able to interview several North Koreans, which of course incensed the Westerners.
Why did the DPRK invite so many journalists and then annoy them? Was the regime trying to add glory to the congress through the presence of so many foreigners without realizing that journalists cannot simply be kept in a room like household ornaments? Or was this the result of one of those frequent squabbles between parts of the North Korea bureaucracy? Did the Foreign Ministry, for example, originally plan to allow the journalists to cover the congress from within the hall only to find its plans vetoed by security authorities?
Or perhaps the regime was alarmed at talk of regime “decapitation” at the time of the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises and realized that at the congress, the entire North Korean leadership was gathered in one soft target so that a single fuel-air bomb might have suddenly ended the regime. Perhaps they reasoned that inviting so many foreigners to Pyongyang, and knowing that the South Korean and U.S.
military could never be sure that they were not in the congress hall, would deter a sudden attack — perhaps, in other words, they were human shields. We may never find out. But whatever the reasons, this was a public relations disaster for North Korea. I doubt that many of the journalists who were forced to sit in boredom for several days, after spending a lot of money to fly in, will either report favorably on that country again or accept future invitations to visit.
The centerpiece of the sixth party congress was the confirmation of Kim Jong-il as Kim Il Sung’s successor, a decision with considerable consequences for the next decades of North Korean history. The centerpiece of the seventh party congress was the confirmation of Kim Jong-un as Workers’ Party of Korea chairman, and with it, a series of appointments that seem to strengthen the party leadership. In retrospect, we shall probably look back on the seventh congress as marking the end of the songun (“military first”) policies of Kim Jong-il and a return to party leadership, broadly as it was under Kim Il Sung.
That is to say that the seventh congress does not show that North Korean politics have progressed, but that they have gone in a circle to where they were 36 years ago.
Some observers have contrasted the message sent by China to the sixth party congress — a lengthy, flowery document praising Kim Il Sung’s achievements and signed by then-Chairman Hua Guofeng — with the brief message sent by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China to the seventh party congress. The published version by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) suggests that this letter ran to a mere six sentences, did not mention Kim Jong-un by name and carried no individual signature. Even the message from Laos seems to have been longer and warmer. Beijing was showing clearly that the chill in its relations with Pyongyang continues.
In contrast, some observers looked for a warmer and more fulsome message from Russia, reflecting that country’s assumption of the role of friend and protector of North Korea now that relations between China and North Korea are so chilly. (For example, in the last few days, Russia has gone out of its way to help North Korea by effectively blocking a UN Security Council presidential statement on the April 28 missile launch, with no reported support from China.)
But even (or perhaps most of all?) at such moments as a party congress, Pyongyang’s obsession with protocol prevails. However warm the relationship, Russia is not ruled by a Communist Party, so that although the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang presented a flower basket to the congress with a letter, the KCNA published no message from Moscow. Similarly, messages from Communist-ruled Vietnam, Laos and Cuba were published, but nothing from close friends such as Iran and Syria. Even in 2016, the elaborate protocols of the Communist world are maintained.
Still, on the theme of foreign relations, it is interesting, too, to note the changes in the regime’s interactions with foreigners over the much shorter period between Kim Jong-un’s accession and the seventh party congress. In the early years of his rule, foreigners in Pyongyang were excited to find that, unlike his father, Kim Jong-un was prepared to meet them.
There was a memorable New Year’s party in 2013, when foreign ambassadors in Pyongyang were asked to step through a door into a hall and were surprised to find their hands being shaken by a reception line consisting of the entire National Defence Commission (including a rather shaky Kim Kyong-hui) and finally by Kim Jong-un himself.
But that phase ended with the disgrace and execution of Jang Song-thaek and with the UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights in North Korea. Now, Kim Jong-un and his staff hold foreigners at bay. There were no foreign diplomats in the congress hall when he made his speeches and no social events around the congress at which foreign ambassadors to Pyongyang were permitted to meet the senior leadership.
Finally, the seventh party congress was notable, too, for the big thing that did not happen. I mean, of course, a fifth nuclear test. Experts had confirmed before the congress that North Korea’s test site was ready for a test, and it looked as if the leadership would order one, both as a show of defiance to the world during the congress and to demonstrate the regime’s “accomplishments” to the Korean people so as to raise its prestige as it anointed Kim Jong-un as party chairman. But there was no test.
Why? Did North Korea’s nuclear technicians have to tell the senior leadership that they were not after all quite ready to test? Or did the senior leadership simply want the option of a test — perhaps in case something went wrong during the congress so that a test could distract attention from political problems? Or was a test planned but canceled — perhaps because, having seen the reaction to the fourth nuclear test and the sanctions that this brought, North Korea decided in the end that it was not worth it?
I wonder whether the reason was quite a different one. The leadership knew that at the congress, they would signal a wish to engage with the international community, and particularly with the United States. They signaled this both by appointing a new foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, a seasoned diplomat well known to foreigners (and a former ambassador to the United Kingdom, where the North Korean Embassy made a point of drawing his appointment to the attention of the U.K. government), and by Kim Jong-un’s stressing the country’s willingness to “improve and normalize relations with those countries which respect the sovereignty of the DPRK and are friendly toward it, though they had been hostile toward it in the past.” This follows on from the North’s overtures to the United States that I described in my last article.
Is it possible, therefore, that North Korea wanted to show the world, and particularly America, that it was in a position to carry out a fifth nuclear test but that it refrained from doing so? That the point of the test was that it did not happen? That the leadership was signaling that now that, through the seventh party congress, it had established internal stability it was in a position to do a deal with the international community?
Until now, North Korea has shown no signs of any willingness to negotiate the abandonment of its nuclear programs which, in the U.S. view, makes any negotiations on denuclearization pointless. But in the decision of the seventh party congress — the formal document that summarizes its proceedings — Pyongyang pledged to “boost [its] self-defensive nuclear force …. as long as the imperialists persist in their nuclear threat and their arbitrary practices.”
This implies that, if the imperialists desist from these actions — however defined — the North will not boost its nuclear force. I think this is a typically convoluted signal to the “imperialists” in Washington that North Korea’s commitment to continual development of its nuclear weapons is not absolute and could, after all, be negotiable.
Then, shortly after the congress concluded, Donald Trump said that if he were elected, he would be prepared to meet Kim Jong-un. It seems very unlikely that his remarks were a response to North Korean statements (I doubt that Trump reads them), but I suspect that Pyongyang may have thought they were. North Korea’s response, conveyed on May 23 by So Se-pyong, its ambassador to the United Nations, was carefully worded. On the one hand it was dismissive, suggesting that Trump was insincere — the North does not like to respond too warmly to others’ approaches — but on the other hand, So noted that “it is up to the decision of my Supreme Leader whether he decides to meet or not,” meaning that a meeting is not excluded. In the diplomatic language of North Korea, that is close to a “yes.”
If Trump is elected president of the United States, I admit to finding the idea of a meeting between him and Kim Jong-un intriguing. It would, of course, fly in the face of longstanding American policy. It would be preposterous that two leaders of such irreconcilable views should meet, indeed it would be almost unthinkable.
But then, so was President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.
*The author is a former British Ambassador to Pyongyang.