Korean Workers' Party - 8th Party Congress
Domestically, leader Kim Jong-un entered his tenth year in office in 2021. The leader had frankly apologized to his people for failing to keep his promise to revive the economy. Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech, the party congress and the assembly session will all take place in January to announce the nation’s detailed policy lines. By concentrating the three major events in the same month, North Korea will likely deliver its clear message to the U.S. Analysts imagine that Pyongyang may announce some legal measures to solidify its status as a nuclear state or officially demand for nuclear disarmament talks in a bid to gain the upper hand at the negotiations with the new U.S. government led by Joe Biden.
North Korean delegates attending the regime's eighth Workers' Party Congress arrived in Pyeongyang at the end of December 2020, raising the possibility the event could proceed at any time. The North's state-run media reported 31 December 2020 that attendees had been gathering in the city since late December to a warm welcome. A ceremony also took place on 30 December 2020 to award certificates to the delegates. The congress would be the first of its kind in four years. It was expected to cover a new five-year economic development plan and possibly send a message to the incoming administration in the U.S.
The outside world is paying particular attention as it's expected that the regime could announce its new policy on South Korea and the U.S. amid stalled denuclearization talks and a policy shift from its initial "self-reliance" scheme. A new government will be inaugurated in the U.S. on January 20 next year. In fact, North Korea-U.S. relations have been at a standstill for nearly two years. North Korea might show its negotiation card first to the incoming U.S. administration to find a breakthrough in the stalled bilateral relations. The Asan Institute projected that the North could test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile in the early months of the incoming Biden administration. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden had already finalized a team to deal with a North Korea policy. Unlike Trump, Biden is a veteran in diplomacy who values working-level negotiations.
Seoul's unification ministry said that North Korea's '80-day campaign' to achieve national and economic goals by the end of the year has actually ended. The North had urged for "self-reliance" as this deadline approached aimed at staving off the coronavirus pandemic and achieving economic development goals.
One widely expected move in the upcoming congress is that Kim Jong-un will elevate and solidify the political status of his sister, Kim Yo-jong as his number two. Her current official title was the 'First Vice Department Director of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party'.
North Korea decided to convene its Supreme People’s Assembly in late January, following the eighth congress of its ruling Workers’ Party in the same month. Sessions of the Supreme People’s Assembly, which is equivalent to South Korea’s National Assembly, are typically held in April. But next year, the North will hold the parliamentary session to be attended by hundreds of delegates three months earlier than usual, despite the COVID-19 crisis.
The Supreme People’s Assembly is North Korea’s legislative organization. It is usually convened in April, or March at the earliest, to announce important policy decisions. It examines major state plans for the year, announces personnel reshuffles at state agencies and reviews budget plans. Its role seems to be similar to that of South Korea’s National assembly. But North Korea’s parliamentary session is only held once or twice a year.
North Korea’s parliamentary session in January may possibly unveil a new team in charge of nuclear negotiations with the U.S. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has already finalized a team to deal with a North Korea policy. Unlike Trump, Biden is a veteran in diplomacy who values working-level negotiations. Given that, North Korea may let the leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong deal with foreign affairs or create a new nuclear negotiation team led by First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui. The North could also bring an old nuclear task force to the diplomatic forefront. Known as the “nuclear management team,” it had taken charge of nuclear negotiations with the U.S. since the mid-1990s when the North and the U.S. signed the Geneva Agreed Framework.
On the first page of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the Eighth Party Congress was introduced as ‘a congress of struggle and progress that will be a watershed moment in the development of our socialist society’. The Rodong Sinmun claimed that the congress would be an epoch-making steppingstone toward strengthening national power and improving people’s lives.
Kim Yo-jong slammed South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha for Kang’s recent remarks about North Korea’s anti-virus measures. Kim said that the North will never forget Kang’s words and she may have to pay dearly for it. Considering Kim’s attitude, some analysts predict that she could lead negotiations with the U.S. down the road. Others believe that the traditional “nuclear management team” will be more appropriate to handle negotiations with the Biden administration. Also known as the “New York Line,” the task force consisted of career diplomats including roving ambassador Kim Myong-gil and former foreign minister Ri Yong-ho.
The Workers Party Congress kicked off in Pyongyang on 05 January 2021, with 4750 delegates in attendance and around 2000 spectators, state media reported. North Korea has said it will lay out a new development program for the next five years at the meeting.
Kim Jong Un opened the country's first ruling party meeting in five years with a rare admission of failure in policies. The KCNA quoted Kim saying the previous goals set in the 2016 meeting "were not met in almost all areas to a great extent." He also said the country "must not repeat the painful lessons." North Korea had quietly scrapped its previous five-year economic plan, as the economy faced multiple challenges and found the goals to be "seriously delayed." In 2020, typhoons and floods in the country destroyed farms, housing, and infrastructure in the country. While the North Korean leader noted "shining successes" by the party, he also stated that "goals for improving the national economy have been seriously delayed."
Kim said in his opening speech that the country had achieved "miraculous victory" by increasing its global prestige. He was referring to North Korea's successful tests in 2017 of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the US, as well as his diplomatic talks with Trump.
Kim Jong-un also talked about the need for a "big leap forward" without detailing what that would entail - that term evokes Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward". North Korea carried out talks on new economic plan and military on day two of the Party Congress but state media offered few details. Compared to 2016, it seems like the congress is being carried out in a much higher of secrecy.
A new formal photo of the North Korean leader was shown off at the Party Congress this time - Kim Jong-un in a white military garb in a never-before-seen portrait. Kim Jong Un pledged to increase defense capabilities on the second day of the ruling Workers' Party congress. Korean Central Television reported that Kim "clarified an important will" to "protect the security of the country and people and the peaceful environment" by "placing the state defense capabilities on a much higher level." It added that Kim also "put forth goals for realizing it." Up until now, the North had asserted the need for peace for the sake of concentrating on economic development, but analysts say the latest remark seems to reflect his commitment to national defense as long as peace is not established with the US.
Kim Jong Un called the United States his "biggest enemy" and threatened to expand his nuclear weaponry, asking Washington to put a stop to its hostile policies towards Pyongyang. Kim said the "key to establishing new relations between (North Korea) and the United States is whether the United States withdraws its hostile policy'' on North Korea. The North Korean leaders stressed he would not use his nuclear weapons unless “hostile forces'' intend to use theirs against his country first. However, he added that the North must strengthen its nuclear capability to fend off any potential US invasion. He ordered officials to develop a more advanced nuclear weapons system with multiple warheads, underwater-launched nuclear missiles, spy satellites and nuclear-powered submarines.
Kim said the essence of Washington's North Korea policy wouldn't change regardless of who comes to power an apparent message aimed at the incoming Joe Biden administration. Observers interpreted it as an indirect warning against hostility towards the North and a request for the U.S. to withdraw anti-North Korea measures. Indicating that physical aggression is always an option when threatened, Kim rolled out goals to boost military strength calling for improvements in missile strike capabilities targeting objects within a range of 15,000 kilometers and hypersonic aircraft development. The leader also officially confirmed for the first time that a new nuclear submarine is in its final stages of examination.
North Korea revised the rules of the ruling Workers' Party to clarify its intent aimed at strengthening national defense capabilities. The North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on 10 January 2021 that the revision was adopted the previous day at the eighth party congress, which is under way in Pyongyang. The KCNA said the revised rules clarified that "powerful defense capabilities would fundamentally contain military threats and safeguard the stability and peaceful environment of the Korean Peninsula." North Korea also reinstated the party's secretariat system, which was scrapped during the 2016 party congress. The party reportedly replaced the Executive Policy Council with the Secretariat and changed the chairmen and vice chairmen positions in the party committees into different levels of secretaries.
During the congress, North Korea elected Kim Jong Un as general secretary of the Workers’ Party in a move to further strengthen his grip on power. North Korea restored the secretariat system and revived the title of general secretary of the Workers’ Party.
Kim Jong Un reiterated his country's resolve to advance its nuclear and missile program as the ruling Workers' Party Congress came to a close on 13 Janaury 2021. North Korea's state-run Korean Central Television reported Kim's closing remarks at the congress, which started on January 5. Kim said the country must do everything it can to increase nuclear war deterrence and build maximum military capability.
KCNA carried a statement by Kim's sister Kim Yo Jong on 14 Janaury 2021. She criticized South Korea for having said that it "captured" the North's military parade and for "precision tracking" celebrations. She said it was a clear expression of the South Korean authorities' "hostile approach" toward the North. Kim Yo Jong appears to be continuing to exert her presence, even though she was not chosen as an alternate member of the party's political bureau, where she previously served, at the party congress. Her title in the statement was changed to "vice director" from her former position of first vice director.
North Korea’s party congress ended without setting specific policy lines for domestic and foreign affairs. It only pledged to take an “eye for an eye” approach in dealing with the U.S. and South Korea and repeated its commitment to stronger defense capabilities. It remains to be seen what change North Korea may attempt, amid the deadlocked negotiations with the U.S. and the prolonged economic difficulties.
During the party congress, the second-longest in North Korean history, the country made it clear that the topmost task is to reinforce its defense capabilities. After the rare party congress, North Korea staged a massive military parade, stressing its resolve once again to strengthen defense capabilities. The North showcased new, state-of-the-art weapons to demonstrate that it’s constantly enhancing its military power. This year, it seemed North Korea is determined to return to the so-called “military-first politics” of former leader Kim Jong-il. T Plans to hold the Supreme People's Assembly on 18 January 2020 were also announced. The parliamentary session is likely to decide on legal revisions and personnel matters based on what was put forth at the party congress.
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