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Why Did Kim Jong-un Call for a Party Congress?

By Stephan Haggard

How are we to interpret Kim Jong-un’s surprising decision to call a Party Congress for early 2021? The regime held ad-hoc Party Conferences in September 2010 and April 2012—before and after Kim Jong-il’s death—in order to cement the succession. But Party Congresses are still rare: the one held in May 2016 was the first since 1980, despite the fact that they are nominally to be held every five years and stand at the organizational apex of the Party’s formal structure.

The Announcement was made at the 6th Plenary (of the 7th Central Committee), and indirectly referenced the external shocks the country has faced not only from sanctions and the unexpected failure at Hanoi but from the COVID border shutdown (the “unexpected and inevitable challenges,” including those in “the region surrounding the Korean peninsula.”)

What got attention, however, was the blunt mea culpa in the formal decision to convene the Congress that was splashed across the front page of Rodong Sinmun: that

“…the economy was not improved in the face of sustaining severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges, thereby planned attainment of the goals for improving the national economy has been seriously delayed and the people’s living standard not been improved remarkably.”

Picking through the small shards of information we have suggests a number of hypotheses for an all-party gathering, including an effort to strengthen institutions and taking the weight off of anniversaries in the fall to extend the time horizon of recovery. But the most obvious interpretation follows a plain reading of the announcement: that the North Korean economy is in worse shape than we—or the leadership—had thought.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

If the Congress is being held for the reasons the announcement suggests–to try to right the economic ship–what does that ultimately portend? Could the current shock actually generate a real about-face and more wide-reaching reforms? Hope springs eternal, but there is little evidence to support such a fundamental shift. Rather, the Congress is more likely to engage in blame-shifting purges while simultaneously outlining new economic plans not fundamentally different than those that have just failed.

Kim Jong-un’s response to progress on the Pyongyang General Hospital can be read as a microcosm of how the Congress could go. A prestige project nonetheless designed to showcase populist policy priorities, the effort is not going well. In July, Kim offered up a scathing assessment of the state bodies tasked with implementing construction. According to KCNA coverage and analysis by Ben Silberstein, Kim Jong-un claimed that the construction coordination commission had failed to carry out the instructions of the Party. It would therefore need to be held to account by the relevant departments of the Central Committee, including through sacking the commission as a whole and making “strict referral of them.”

As Silberstein points out, this shadow dance is now virtually an institutional feature of the socialist sector of the North Korean economy, in which the party makes plans that are unrealistic then blames lower level officials for subsequent failures. There are already open hints that the Five Year Plan has been running well-behind schedule: at Party Plenum in December and indirectly confirmed in the agendas of the Politburo and SPA meetings in April. And mentions of corruption suggest that the de facto mixed economy model is a disability when resources are scarce and private entrepreneurs and households are hoarding. The Congress could thus be a wider forum for shaking up the economic ministries, launching a crackdown on corruption—in short, a resort to controls–while not fundamentally shifting course.

Meetings, Meetings, Meetings: It’s About the Party and Appointments

A second hypothesis that is complementary to the first is that Kim Jongunn is in fact seeking to use institutions more effectively. A number of analysts have noted the uptick in meetings. Setting aside Central Military Commission meetings, these include an “emergency” Politburo gathering at the end of July, and another one in mid-August; a Workers Party of Korea “Executive Policy Council” meeting; and the Central Committee (CC) plenum that rendered the decision to convene the Congress.

A charitable interpretation would see Kim Jong-un seeking to institutionalize his rule; for example, there was explicit mention in the announcement that the Congress should in fact convene every five years that is worth citing at length:

“Calling for regularly convening the congresses of the Party, the supreme guidance organ of the Party, in order to confirm the line, strategic and tactical measures for steering the development of the times and the revolution and adjust and reinforce the leadership body for guaranteeing their execution, he advanced the important guidelines for the operation of the congress. “

If Kim does in fact have health problems, then such institutionalization could even be in anticipation of a succession, as was the ad hoc Party Conference in 2010.

Yet another possibility is that the regime might undertake more fundamental institutional changes. Instead of simply re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship, the leadership could move toward a more deliberative policy-making model along the lines of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee (which has itself been weakened by the accretion of power in the hands of Xi Jinping).

But there is little evidence of any deviation from the system’s highly centralized, leader-oriented structure. Rather than moving toward a more institutionalized, consultative or deliberative model, the Party Congress will probably be used to exhort, cajole, monitor and ultimately to threaten and instill fear. The run-up to the Congress could—in line with the observations above—be preceded by a substantial shakeup of personnel, again for blame shifting reasons; Martin Weiser among others has picked up on this theme and provided detail on recent moves in this regard.

Timing is Everything

A final cluster of hypotheses center on timing. As we are seeing in spades in the U.S. elections, the timing of key political events is consequential. In this regard, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump face quite similar challenges: will the economy rebound on a schedule that permits them to claim credit in advance of elections (in the U.S.) or the usual round of fall anniversaries (in North Korea).

Moreover, the U.S. elections themselves may warrant hosting a major party meeting after November, as knowing who is in the White House would add some clarity to North Korean planning.  Kim Yo-jong’s recent comments likely signal as much and that there is little expectation of an October surprise in Pyongyang.,

Yet if we are expecting some fundamentally new departure in North Korean foreign or domestic policy, the Congress is almost certain to disappoint. What evidence do we have that the fine tacking between strategies in Pyongyang that analysts have been forced to pore over the last nine years really have had much enduring consequence on where the regime is going?

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. 

Photo from Wikimedia commons.

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