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Five things we learned from North Korea’s party congress

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SEOUL: North Korea has wrapped up its first ruling party congress in nearly four decades.

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Here are five things we learned from the four-day gathering of the isolated, nuclear-armed state’s top decision-making body.

The party’s back
The congress sealed the political comeback of the Workers’ Party of Korea which had been forced to cede decision-making influence to the military during the rule of late leader Kim Jong-Il from 1994-2011.

Kim’s “songun,” or military-first policy shifted the power the party had enjoyed during the rule of his father Kim Il-Sung to the generals. He never convened a single party congress during his 17 years in charge.

Since current leader Kim Jong-Un took over following his father’s death in 2011, the party has regained lost ground, as he replaced scores of powerful military commanders and forged alliances with influential party officials.

The congress reasserted the party leadership as the top decision-making body, its supremacy supported by the election of Kim Jong-Un as party chairman.

Nuclear weapons program in high gear
Just in case anyone still had the slightest doubt, the congress underlined that North Korea intends to push full steam ahead with its nuclear weapons program in defiance of UN sanctions and near universal condemnation.

Kim Jong-Un praised the “magnificent and exhilarating sound” of the North’s last nuclear test in January, and delegates adopted Kim’s report calling for an improved and expanded nuclear arsenal.

Kim’s promises to pursue a policy of non-proliferation — North Korea withdrew from the global Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 — and to push for global denuclearization were largely dismissed as token nods to his insistence that North Korea was a “responsible” nuclear weapons state.

While the congress was a comeback for the party, Kim went to great lengths to stress the prime role of the nuclear-armed military in guaranteeing the country’s survival.

Titles matter
If being supreme leader of a one-party state wasn’t enough, Kim Jong-Un was formally elected to the position of Workers’ Party chairman by the congress delegates.

The post adds to Kim’s already impressive list of high-ranking titles, including chairman of the central military commission, chairman of the national defence commission and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army.

But titles are important in North Korea and the party chairmanship carries a strong symbolic resonance as it was last held by Kim’s grandfather, the country’s revered founder leader Kim Il-Sung.

Kim Jong-Un has played up his physical likeness to his grandfather, and the post of chairman suggests he wants to rule like him as well.

Man with a plan
Kim Jong-Un unveiled a five-year economic plan, the first such document for decades.

Few details of the plan were provided, beyond a general ambition to boost output and efficiency across every key economic sector.

But the fact that it was presented by Kim was seen as significant, with the young leader assuming personal responsibility for an economy that had been driven into the ground by his father.

In his very first public address, at a military parade in April 2012, Kim had said he was determined that North Koreans would “never have to tighten their belts again.”

The need to raise living standards has been a constant refrain of his annual New Year addresses, although analysts note that, so far, they have been largely devoid of any specific policy initiatives.

Foreign media control
North Korea tightly controls reporting in the country and is second from last (after Eritrea) on the World Press Freedom Index.

Around 130 foreign reporters were invited to cover the congress, but were only given access to the actual event on the very last day — for five minutes.

For the rest of the time they were carefully marshaled by groups of minders, with all movement outside their island hotel subject to tight restrictions.

A BBC journalist whose reports were deemed disrespectful was detained and eventually expelled from the country after being questioned for eight hours and forced to sign a statement apologizing for coverage that officials described as “speaking very ill of the system and the leadership of the country.”

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