The WPK’s Seventh Congress recently ended. Although it was the first Congress since 1980, it was covered relatively poorly by the international media.
Most likely this is caused by the DPRK’s treatment of foreign journalists. Approximately 150 foreign media correspondents and some activists sympathetic to North Korea were invited to the Congress. However, at the last moment they were not allowed to the Congress hall: The authorities merely organized a few trips for them and on the Congress’ final day approximately 30 people were allowed to the hall for 15 minutes. The authorities explained their decision rather simply – “We don’t have enough chairs in the hall” – leaving the journalists to speculate as to the real cause for such behavior.
This is probably somehow related to the delay of the Congress’ opening. In March the South Korean intelligence service reported that the Congress had been scheduled for May 7, but later the Rodong Sinmun announced a slightly different date: May 6. However, on May 6, the DPRK TV did not mention the Congress at all, and it started later, probably at night on May 6 until May 7. Thus, quite paradoxically, the South Korean intelligence turned out to be right all along.
As expected, a variety of topics were discussed on the Congress and one of them was the state of the DPRK economy.
How can the state make the DPRK economy work? There are at the very least three conditions to fulfill.
First, one should reject the idea of central planning: the USSR and the Eastern Bloc’s experience teaches that nothing good comes of it. Second, the state should set up mutually beneficial relations with North Korean businessmen, who are de facto in control of a significant part of the country’s economy, and guarantee their private property. Third, the country needs foreign investors. One can discuss the other conditions, but these are the very basic ones. If not fulfilled, North Koreans will continue to live in destitution.
What can we make of this situation? Let us listen to the Leader’s report. The most important part of Kim Jong Un’s speech dedicated to the economy was this:
“The socialist system of responsible enterprises is to be properly established. Factories and cooperatives have to work on a strategy of management in accordance with the demands of the socialist system of responsible enterprises, work actively and responsibly, set straight and enlarge production.”
‘The socialist system of responsible enterprises’ is the state’s program of their de facto autonomy, established in 2014
“The socialist system of responsible enterprises” is the state’s program of their de facto autonomy, established in 2014. A factory’s director is given the right to establish wages and to sell a significant amount of production (whether or not he pleases). It is, in fact, a partial privatization. This program was previously mentioned in the Rodong Sinmun, but the Leader’s speech at the Party’s Congress is the highest approval any policy in the DPRK can get.
Unfortunately, this is all the good news on the economy we have. Businessmen are simply not mentioned: Officially there is no private property, and no businessmen in the DPRK. As for investors, in order to even hope for some, North Korea must announce a new line, and not even something like “we’ll conduct some reforms,” but rather something like this: “LOOK, WE ARE CONDUCTING REFORMS!!!”
In other words, an announcement must be loud, clear and out-of-character to be noticed: If it creates a significant reaction in the international media, some investors may actually think: “Maybe they are serious. Shouldn’t we try?” But for now, all the DPRK is saying is that there is no reform, we are loyal to the Leaders and to the old ways; all glory to socialism. This can be sold inside the country (since a reforming dictatorship is less stable) but will not bring any fruits on the international stage.
In a broad sense, the foreign policy of Kim Jong Un is bringing very bad results. At the Congress Kim announced that DPRK has no allies left:
“Today we can trust only our own strength. No one intends to help us, no one is wants our country to unify, to live well, to be strong and prosperous.”
There are two important factors which have allowed for such a situation. The major reason why no one wants to do business with North Korea is not that the country is ruled by a cruel dictatorship; Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy which does not treat its women as human beings, yet many people go to do business with Ar Riyadh. The main cause of the DPRK’s economic isolation is that its leadership seems to think a proper model of investor-state relations goes something like this:
INVESTOR: Master! You honor your humble servant with your presence.
DPRK AUTHORITIES: What do you want, peasant?
INVESTOR: My liege, allow me to invest some money in your glorious country.
DPRK AUTHORITIES: Well, you are allowed to, but I will be watching you.
INVESTOR: Thank you, oh kindest of the kind! I will never forget your great mercy!
(The investor invests his/her money, and in some time the enterprise turns out to be profitable one)
DPRK AUTHORITIES: You have done well. This is mine now. Now get out before I set my dog on you.
This in itself is enough to push away any sane person. However, there is one more factor: the DPRK authorities, and Kim Jong Un himself, seemingly do not completely understand how the world works. Pyongyang thinks that to detonate another bomb after another UN resolution is very brave and cool. Take that, you bastards. Look how cool and independent we are. In practice it results only in alienating those who want to work with the DPRK and strengthening the hawkish factions in neighboring nations. Also, an atomic bomb detonation does not really bring them anything beneficial: Everyone already knows that they have the bomb.
The target for his criticism was the policy of reform and openness (in China): the transition from Maoism to the market economy and soft authoritarianism under Deng Xiaoping
Furthermore, at the Congress Kim criticized China, i.e. the very country the DPRK conducts about 90 percent of foreign trade with. The target for his criticism was the policy of reform and openness: the transition from Maoism to the market economy and soft authoritarianism under Deng Xiaoping: “A mind-blowing bourgeois wind of ‘reform’ and ‘openness’ blows nearby, but we, filled with the spirit of Songun, steadily advance forward with the way of socialism.”
And finally the DPRK awarded two prizes simultaneously: the Kim Il Sung Prize and the Kim Jong Il Prize – to the song “We Have Nothing to Envy in the World” (no, not composers or musicians, but the song itself was given an award). It probably is not a coincidence that out of all things they chose a song with such an isolationist name.
Thus we come to a sad conclusion: there won’t be any significant investment in the DPRK economy in the near future.
IDEOLOGY AND INTERNAL POLICY
The main ideological message of the Congress was simple: After the 1980s, the DPRK says, the many ruling parties of the Eastern Bloc have either perished or abandoned their original ideas. And we, Pyongyang proudly announces, survived. Why? Because our Leader is the greatest. Unlike the USSR, which stipulated that it is ruled by “collective leadership,” the DPRK proudly acknowledges the rule of one man – and presents it as a very good thing.
The word “communism” – as opposed to “socialism” – was not itself mentioned a single time at the Congress. Here one should make a remark about the words “socialism” and “communism,” since in Korean they mean not exactly the same as in English. Both North and South version of Korean language borrowed these concepts from the USSR. And in Soviet Union, “socialism” meant modern, transitional state from capitalism to the future utopia, and “communism” meant the perfect future. Thus a “communist” party is a party which strives to achieve this utopia. The WPK is not one of these, according to this designation, since they want to preserve socialism, not to achieve communism.
As for internal policy, here is the present situation. Somewhere in 2010, after a failure of the currency reform, the North Korean government seemingly came to a conclusion: If a person trades things on a bazaar, this is not a crime in itself, so we should not send him/her to a concentration camp. This the bazaars were left in peace. The traders continue to work, and the economy grows gradually.
The DPRK’s authorities are yet to be enlightened enough to recognize that one can refrain from executing people for watching foreign movies. Pyongyang organizes regular crackdowns on the foreign DVDs. Those who fell victim to such campaigns are imprisoned, and – if they are really unlucky – shot.
THE RITUAL AND THE RESHUFFLING
The main change in the personality cult is the alteration of one of Kim Jong Un’s titles: he is no longer a first secretary, but rather a chairman of the WPK. Likewise, the Secretariat is now the Department for State Affairs. This is all merely symbolic, of course, but all symbols have meanings.
First of all, the “secretary” title is just plain weird. Whose secretary was Brezhnev, for example? To whom did he prepare coffee and tea? The origins of such an odd term go back to the 1920s, when Joseph Stalin was a general secretary, i.e. a chief bureaucrat of the Russian Communist Party of Bolsheviks (RCPB). Stalin used the Secretariat of the RCPB as his power base, and when he became an absolute ruler of the USSR, his position became that of the country’s leader. This tradition is now done with in the DPRK.
This can also be interpreted as a slight hidden insult to Kim Jong Un’s father. Kim Jong Il’s titles, as the readers remember, are “eternal Chairman of the National Defense Commission” and “eternal general secretary of the WPK.” And the titles chosen by Kim Jong Un for himself are “first chairman of the National Defense Commission” and “chairman of the WPK,” i.e. higher than his father.
Kim Jong Un also appointed new party leadership: members and candidate members of the Central Committee and the Politburo as well as four members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo: the highest ruling body of the country. All four are rather old members of the country’s political elite and remain there despite the constant purges of the elite. Thus one can suppose that these people, or at least some of them are his chief aides. Who are these four?
The first one Is Kim Yong Nam, the chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly, who, as a loyal serf, serves the Kim Family for the three generation.
The second is Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong So – a powerful man who for quite some time hold the position of a chief of the Main Political Department in the DPRK Army.
The third one is Pak Pong Ju, who heads the Cabinet of Ministers. Pak has a reputation of a person who supports moderate economic reforms: the enterprises’ autonomy, bazaars, non-state cooperatives and so on.
All that I heard about (Choe Ryong Hae) make me think that he is a truly disgusting person, even by standards of the North Korean elite
Finally, the fourth and the final one is Choe Ryong Hae. This man has already been subjected to repression: He was reduced in rank, then reinstated and then seemingly stripped of all rank whatsoever. When he disappeared for a few months, there were rumors that he was send to a village for forced labor. In any case, comrade Choe is with us once again. All that I heard about this man make me think that he is a truly disgusting person, even by standards of the North Korean elite.
THE LEADER’S PORTRAIT
Finally, the Rodong Sinmun published a new portrait of Kim Jong Un. U Min-yong, a South Korean dentist, of whom I asked to provide comment, said that although the portrait’s resolution is insufficient for an exact diagnosis, Kim definitely has teeth problems: either caries or dental tartar.
Kim Jong Un seemingly does not care about his health. He is obese, he chain-smokes and here is another issue: teeth. And his family friend – the Japanese chef Kenji Fujimoto – reported that Kim “drinks 10 bottles of wine per night.” This is likely untrue: Fujimoto’s reputation not exactly impeccable, but such a message is definitely approved by Kim, and thus he, at the very least, does not think that heavy drinking is a bad thing.
Thus it seems that Kim Jong Un is working hard to shorten his life span, thus slightly increasing his chances of dying a natural death. However, given how slow the economic reforms are and how bad his foreign policy is, he is not likely to succeed.
All images: Rodong Sinmun
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