Damir Sagolj/Reuters
People walked near the venue of the ruling party congress in Pyongyang, North Korea Thursday.

N. Korea's leader signals firm grip on power as he opens rare congress

Kim Jong-un's focus is a two-pronged push on nuclear weapons and the economy – not to mention sending a clear message about his style of leadership.

As Kim Jong-un presides over the first Congress that North Korea’s ruling party has held for 36 years, he is taking a leaf out of former US President Dwight Eisenhower’s policy book.

The Korean Workers’ Party is expected to use its 7th  National Congress, opening on Friday, to endorse Mr. Kim’s signature twin-pronged policy of building a deterrent arsenal of nuclear weapons while strengthening his country’s economy.

In today’s North Korea that is called “byongjin,” or “simultaneous push. In 1950s America it was called the “New Look” national security policy.

“It makes perfect sense” to a North Korean regime fearful of outsiders for the same reasons it made sense to Washington during the cold war, says Andrei Lankov, an analyst of North Korean affairs at Kookmin University in Seoul. “Once you have them, nuclear weapons are cheap to maintain,” freeing money to invest in economic development.

This week’s party Congress is expected to cement both the young Kim’s policies and his personal rule, according to Pyongyang watchers.

“Kim Jong-un will use the Congress to declare a new era in North Korea under his leadership, to announce to the world that power has been consolidated,” says Moon Chung-in, a professor of politics at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Dramatic new policy announcements are not on the cards, it seems; instead, the gathering of some 3,000 delegates will be more of a celebratory affair.

After several years of turmoil and purges since Kim took power in 2011, “he feels confident enough to have this rite of passage, to officially elevate his status to bona fide leader,” suggests Lee Seong-hyon, an analyst at the Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based think tank. “He is now the sole leader who calls the shots.”

The unusual Congress is also seen as marking a definitive break from the ad hoc style of leadership that Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, favored.

“This hits the reset button” on the way North Korea is run, says Michael Madden, a scholar at the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. The elder Kim largely ignored the ruling party’s structures, preferring to rule informally through some two dozen cronies, Mr. Madden says.

That led to the creation of fiefdoms and alternative power centers which the younger Kim has been dismantling – often brutally – since he came to power five years ago. Most dramatically, Kim’s powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was dragged from a Politburo meeting in an arrest broadcast on state TV, and quickly executed.

Kim has been transferring power away from the military, to which Kim Jong-il gave priority under his “military first” policy, and shifting North Korea’s political center of gravity back to the Korean Workers’ Party, in the Leninist tradition. This week’s Congress seals that shift and “formalizes how North Korea does its political business,” says Mr. Madden.

“The message of the Congress is that they are going back to the good old days of Kim Il-sung,” the founder of the Workers’ Party and of North Korea, whose rule is remembered as an era of stability and security, says Dr. Lankov, even though Kim Il-sung ruled with an murderously heavy hand.

North Koreans may no longer be guaranteed free food rations, as they were in Kim Il-sung’s day, but after several years of steady economic growth and quiet reforms they are more prosperous than ever before; the days of famine are long gone, if only because farmers are now allowed to sell some of their crops on the free market.

"The first thing [at the Congress] is to advance the pace of economic building for a powerful nation," North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong told the Associated Press in an interview last month. "The second is to improve the people's living standards and to find the best, optimum ways to improve the people's living standards under these circumstances. And the third, to strengthen our national defense capabilities."

Nobody is expecting any dramatic announcement of economic reform, such as Deng Xiaoping’s declaration of “reform and opening” in China in 1978 that transformed North Korea’s giant neighbor. But “institutionalizing domestic reforms and improving economic management” could be on the agenda, suggests Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at Seoul National University.

Recent years have seen a number of such low-key reforms, such as the introduction of Special Economic Zones, the increasing adoption of market mechanisms, and the reorganization of agricultural collective farms. But it remains to be seen, analysts caution, how well the North Korean economy can withstand new UN sanctions, the toughest it has ever faced.

Even Pyongyang’s ally, China, voted for those sanctions in March, following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. But international opprobrium does not appear to be deterring Kim from his goal of making his country an operational nuclear power, with the ability to strike the United States.

He clearly sees such an ability as the surest deterrent against any attempt by the United States or any other nation to effect regime change in Pyongyang; UN sanctions, and even stiffer US sanctions, have not slowed North Korea’s drive for that deterrent.

After testing a nuclear device last January, the North Koreans launched a long range missile in February – also in defiance of UN strictures – and declared in March that they had developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM.) They have also been testing re-entry ready missile nose cones.

“Their goal is to have an ICBM capable of hitting targets in the United States and a reliable nuclear warhead,” says Lankov. “To do that they will have to test, and test, and test.”

In that respect, too, he points out, Kim is following in Ike’s footsteps. Until he declared a test ban in 1958, according to US Department of Energy records, President Eisenhower oversaw 162 nuclear tests. The Soviet Union conducted 83 such tests over the same period.

Don’t expect the North Korean government, for whom “security comes first, prosperity second,” to behave differently, says Lankov. 

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