What To Know About North Korea's First Party Congress In 35 Years

Kim Jong-un is expected to use the event to solidify his grip on power.

06/05/2016 8:41 AM AEST | Updated 06/05/2016 8:41 AM AEST
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during an award ceremony in February. Kim is expected to use the party congress to solidify his power.

North Korea is set to hold its first Worker's Party congress in over 35 years on Friday, in one of the biggest political events of Kim Jong-un's young rule. This is just the seventh such meeting in the country's history, and the only one not to occur under the rule of Kim Jong-un's grandfather, Kim Il-sung. 

Delegates from around the repressive and secretive country will convene in the capital of Pyongyang in the coming days to meet and elect the Worker's Party central committee. The Worker's Party, along with the military, runs North Korea -- although Kim Jong-un holds ultimate power in the authoritarian state. Because Kim is the supreme leader, the congress matters more as a venue for his policy announcements and control over the state than it does for the way the country is actually governed. 

North Korea is pulling out all the stops for the congress, including holding massive celebrations in the capital and running over 1,500 state-controlled newspaper articles promoting the event. The government launched a "70-day campaign of loyalty" in March when the event was first announced. Foreign journalists from outlets around the world have also been given rare access to cover the congress, although their movement and what they're permitted to see is being strictly controlled. 

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A view of Pyongyang ahead of North Korea's party congress. This is a huge event in the country, with a large-scale propaganda effort promoting it.

No One Knows Exactly What's Going To Happen

Despite Pyongyang's play for domestic and international attention for the party congress, there are big questions over what Kim actually intends to announce at the event. 

"Everybody is expecting grand things, but let’s be realistic, we don’t know what’s going to happen," Katharine H.S. Moon, senior fellow at the Brookings Center for East Asia Policy Studies, told The WorldPost. 

In keeping with the opaque nature of North Korean politics, there's very little information on what might be the eventual fallout from the congress. It's also not entirely clear why Kim chose to hold the event now after such a long hiatus. (The last was in 1980.)

Analysts believe that Kim is holding the congress to resurrect the status of the Worker's Party and shift from the way his father ruled.

“Under his father’s watch there was no party congress, his father had demoted the party and promoted the military -- really relying on the military as his power base," Moon said. “In a way, Kim Jong-un is returning to the emphasis on the party of his grandfather.” 

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The late Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il are seen on a sign in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 3. Kim Jong-un may be elevating the importance of the Worker's Party that his grandfather started.

Kim Could Use The Event To Solidify His Power

Kim Jong-un has been in power for only a short time -- taking over from his father, who died in 2011 -- but his rule has been extremely violent. Kim is believed to have carried out over a hundred executions of regime figures, including top-ranking officials like his uncle Jang Song-thaek. Observers see Kim's purges as a way of consolidating his power and preventing any challenges to his authority.

Kim may use the party congress as the latest opportunity to strengthen his grip on North Korea's government and reorganize the Worker's Party leadership to compose it only of loyalists. Whereas Kim Jong-il had the military for support, his son may now turn to the Worker's Party to secure his hold on the country.

"The young Kim needs a power base of his own. The military was not and can never be his power base, he has no link with the military and no revolutionary credentials of his own. The best he can do is maybe rely on the large party apparatus,” Moon said.

Simply the fact that Kim is convening the highest-level meeting possible while only a few years into his rule is also significant, Moon explains. Just holding the event is a way for Kim to project power and leadership.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters
Spectators clap hands during a performance at the Mangyongdae Children's Palace in central Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 5.

He Might Also Announce Big Policy Plans

Since 2013, Kim has pursued what's called his "byungjin" policy of simultaneously attempting economic growth while building up North Korea's nuclear capabilities. Faced with increasing economic sanctions over its nuclear program and with little access to outside resources, however, many analysts see this policy as doomed to fail.

“The problem is that he wants to have his cake and eat it too, to grow the economy and grow the nuclear machine, but the problem is it’s really difficult to do both,” Moon said. “They don’t have the resources, so he’s chasing after an impossible dream.”

As a result, Kim may instead announce that North Korea will focus more on economic development. Kim has already made efforts to increase wealth and build up the capital of Pyongyang, and has been overlooking some of the private markets for food and goods in the country. Nevertheless, the country remains in dire economic straits and the government last March warned of the possibility of famine in the future.

The world will be watching closely to see which changes, if any, Kim has in store for North Korea when the congress convenes on Friday.

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