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Q&A: The 7th Congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea

 

  1. What is the Congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea?

The Congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea is technically the highest deliberative institution of the sole governing party of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The top national party representatives will gather to debate and hear reports by the central authorities, make amendments to party rules, set the Party's political line, and elect new leaders. Party members select their representatives at party conferences and assemblies at the local level, who then go through similar processes at the city, county, and provincial level conferences, to select the final participants at the national level.

In reality, the Congress is a highly ritualized gathering of a few hundred to a thousand representatives. The elections are a formality, with representative candidates pre-selected by the leadership, and votes for representatives unanimous with only one name on the election ballot. During the Congress, the general secretary or chairman of the party is expected to give a statement for about four or five hours, review domestic and international policies of the party, and indicate possible coming changes in such policies. A handful of senior leaders are expected to deliver speeches that have been closely vetted and approved by the Central Committee that primarily praise the greatness of the party, its leadership, and its policies, and faithfully reflect the established position of the party leadership.

The Congress is a festive and costly event that is characterized by massive rallies and parades, sumptuous feasts, and giving of expensive gifts by the leader of the Worker’s Party of Korea to his loyal followers. It is made possible by the domestic “mobilization” of the North Korean people, and their contribution of compulsory, unpaid labor. For the previous 6th Party Congress held in Pyongyang in 1980, the North Korean government mobilized a million people at a mass rally, and another 50,000 people for the mass gymnastics and artistic games known as the Arirang Mass Games.

  1. Why is the 7th Party Congress important?

Most prior party congresses have served as important platforms to announce internal party policy changes or make important announcements.

The 7th Party Congress, which is set to take place over several days starting on May 6, comes 36 years after the previous party congress in 1980 and is expected to be used by Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s current leader, to solidify his rule and announce the direction of the country and new policies.

Since Kim Jong-Un rose to power following his father’s death in December 2011, he has repeatedly claimed that he wants to improve living conditions of North Koreans, and promised the people that the government would ensure happiness and build prosperity. In March 2013, Kim announced his “byungjin (parallel) line” policy, which is designed to simultaneously improve the economy while also furthering national defense through nuclear tests and growth of military capability. During his New Year’s statement on January 1, 2016, Kim Jong-Un called on the party to maintain “the improvement of people’s living conditions as the most important among numerous state affairs.” In previous instances such as at an October 10, 2015 military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the party, and in his New Year’s statements in 2013, 2014, and 2015, Kim Jong-Un also said the party increased national strength and improved people’s standard of living despite difficulties.

Historically, the period between the 6th and 7th Party Congresses is the longest hiatus between such meetings. The 1st and 2nd party congresses in 1946 and 1948 respectively, held prior to the formal establishment of the DPRK on September 9, 1948, set out goals to establish an independent state and enhance the political, economic and cultural standards of living for the public in general. The 3rd Party Congress, held in 1956, specified that Marx-Leninism was to be the ideological guideline for the party to end imperialism and feudalism, and to build a communist society. While the 4th Party Congress in 1961 did not make substantive changes, the 5th Party Congress held in 1970 replaced Marx-Leninism with Kim Il-Sung’s ‘Juche (self-reliance)’ philosophy as the party’s guiding ideology. And at the last 6th Party Congress in 1980, the party officially declared Kim Jong-Il as the leader of North Korea and the successor of his father, Kim Il-Sung, the regime’s founder.

  1. What has changed in North Korea since the previous party congress?

North Korea has had to adapt to a world with a rapidly changing political, economic, and technological environment. After North Korea’s government-run food distribution system collapsed between 1993 and 1995, a resulting famine provoked despair and mass starvation, which compelled North Koreans to engage in small-scale private commercial activities for survival. Since then, the government has allowed a semi-official, parallel ‘grey’ economy to survive while posing restrictions on its growth, and looking the other way as government officials at all levels extort money from those engaged in market activities. Since government agencies including the Workers Party of Korea, the army, prisons, police, state-owned companies, and schools and universities could no longer count on receiving adequate budgets from the central government, they began to require their staff and their constituents to provide forced labor, thereby saving labor costs. Since North Koreans are not permitted to select their own jobs, or leave jobs without permission, uncompensated and mandatory labor has become a widely experienced abuse.

Since its founding, the DPRK has compelled labor from those held in labor or prison camps as a form of political coercion or punishment. But in recent years forced labor has become so integral to the operation of the country that is akin to an economic backbone. The preparations for the 7th Workers Party of Korea Congress were no exception. Starting on February 25, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun announced the launch of a 70-bay “battle” to prepare for the Party Congress. The party organized task forces to compel people, including women and children, to demonstrate their loyalty to the government by working harder to increase national production to cover the costs of the congress, all without providing any financial compensation.

North Korea is seeing an increased flow of information into the country from the outside, in particular by way of China, which has damaged the North Korean government’s efforts to wall off its people from external influences. This has also damaged Party efforts to promote Kim Jong-Un’s legitimacy as the latest representative of the ruling Kim family dynasty.

  1. What is the position of the international community on human rights in North Korea?

In 2014, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea found that crimes against humanity have been committed “pursuant to policies at the highest level of the state.” The government indoctrinates people from childhood, restricts freedom of movement, expression, and association, controls job placement, and exacts forced labor to control the population. The government distributes privileges and sanctions on the basis of gender and songbun, or political class, to maintain a rigid social structure to further reduce the likelihood of challenges to the ruling party and its political system. Ever-present police and intelligence officers, buttressed by informers at the community level, enforce discipline and identify dissident behavior for rapid and severe punishment. Taken all together, the Commission of Inquiry found that the gravity, scale, and nature of North Korea’s violations revealed rights abuses in a state “that does not have a parallel in the contemporary world.”

The Commission of Inquiry encouraged the North Korean government to engage and cooperate with the UN and the international community to improve the rights situation, but also noted that Pyongyang is “unwilling to implement its international obligation to prosecute and bring the perpetrators to justice, because those perpetrators act in accordance with State Policy.” The commission further urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC), but this effort has been stalled by the intransigence of China and Russia at the Council. The UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly have repeatedly passed resolutions to condemn rights abuses in North Korea and supported the COI findings. The UN Security Council has placed DPRK on its agenda and discussed rights abuses in North Korea two years in a row, and in March the UN Human Rights Council created a panel of experts tasked with finding practical ways to hold rights violators in North Korea to account.

The North Korean government vociferously rejected both COI report and the HRC resolution passed in March 2016, but in September 2014, during the review of its rights record during the 2nd cycle of the Universal Period Review at the UN Human Rights Council, North Korea agreed to maintain constructive and cooperative dialogue with the UN in the field of human rights, cooperate with relevant international organizations with the aim to address the socio-economic needs of the people, and take practical measures to further protect and promote human rights, particularly for children, women and other vulnerable groups. It also noted recommendations to end forced labor and join the International Labor Organization (ILO). North Korea remains one of the few nations in the world that has not yet joined the ILO, a profound irony for a nation ruled by a political party named for Korean workers.

5. Are New Policies Announced at the Party Congress Likely to Improve Human Rights in North Korea?

At the congress, the leadership will likely unveil its strategy and policies to deal with North Korea’s new economic, political and social situation in the national and international environment, including the expanded international sanctions against North Korea arising from its nuclear weapons and missile tests. The big question is whether these pressures will result in policies that offer opportunities for incremental social change within North Korea.

This Congress provides an important platform for Kim Jong-Un and the new party leadership to explain their policies, particularly those related with the livelihood and everyday life of ordinary people. All indications, however, are that few changes are likely to fix decades-old government and party practices that constitute rights abuses such as forced labor, controls on freedom of movement, and severe restrictions on economic activity and choice of occupation that affect basic rights such as health, food, and shelter. To date, the North Korean leadership appears to remain in denial about the impact that its rights-abusing policies have had.

  1. North Korea held a Party Conference in 2012. What is the difference between a Party Congress and a Party Conference?

A Party Conference is similar to an ad hoc Party Congress, convened under extraordinary circumstances to address urgent issues, and hence, an event that is significantly less costly and prestigious. The party has so far held four Party Conferences, in 1958, 1966, 2010 and 2012.

Kim Jong-Un used party conferences to jump-start his rule. The September 2010 Party Conference marked Kim Jong-Un’s official debut in the world of North Korean politics, and at that time he resuscitated a number of effectively defunct party organs, such as the Central Committee, and the Politburo. The party formalized Kim Jong-Un’s succession at the Party Conference of April 2012. At this last conference, the party declared Kim Jong-Un’s father, Kim Jong-Il, as the Eternal General Secretary of the party posthumously. He joined Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung, in the ruling pantheon; Kim Il-Sung was declared the Eternal President of the country in 1988. The April 2012 Party Conference also established Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism as the “only guiding idea of the party,” created the post of First Secretary and gave it to Kim Jong-Un, and also made him Chair of the party’s Central Military Commission and a member of the Presidium of the Politburo of the party’s Central Committee.

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