The Koreas | Diplomacy | Politics | East Asia

5 Key Takeaways from North Korea’s Party Congress

North Korea set an assertive tone for 2021 through its Party Congress.

By Gabriela Bernal for
5 Key Takeaways from North Korea’s Party Congress

Thousands rally to welcome the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin

North Korea is currently holding its Eighth Workers’ Party Congress, setting forth key policy directions for this year and the near future. The event is significant as it’s the first such congress held since 2016. Although still ongoing, leader Kim Jong Un’s remarks over the past few days have offered several key insights on what direction North Korea may choose to take in 2021.

Assertive Stance Against the United States

Perhaps the most concerning development over the past few days has been Kim’s increasingly assertive stance vis-à-vis the United States. Although relations between both countries somewhat improved during the Trump administration, with Joe Biden’s inauguration just over a week away it’s clear that Pyongyang will not go easy on the new president.

According to Kim Jong Un, despite the DPRK’s best efforts at diplomacy for the sake of establishing “peace” in the region and on the peninsula, “the hostile nature of the American policy towards the DPRK has gone to extreme, instead of becoming weakened,” North Korean state-run media KCNA reported on January 9. Kim went on to emphasize the need for his country to continue increasing its military capabilities to “contain the military threat from the U.S. and achieve peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula.”

In an apparent jab at the incoming U.S. president, the North Korean leader made the following statement: “Whoever takes power in the U.S., its entity and the real intention of its policy toward the DPRK would never change.” He also added that “the key to establishing a new DPRK-U.S. relationship lies in the U.S. withdrawal of its hostile policy toward the DPRK.” Through his comments, Kim appears to be putting pressure on the incoming Biden administration to carefully consider what North Korea policy they choose to adopt, lest the consequences of such a policy lead to a dangerous level of bilateral tensions and regional instability.

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Improved Weapons Capabilities

Besides the indirect comments directed at Biden, Kim Jong Un spoke at length about the recent improvements in the country’s military capabilities; developments that should not only concern the United States but the entire world.

During the Congress, Kim lauded “the great cause of building a [domestic] nuclear force” as “a miracle unprecedented in history,” KCNA reported. He also mentioned the necessity “to develop the nuclear technology to a higher level and make nuclear weapons smaller and lighter for more tactical uses” which would allow the North to “continuously push ahead with the production of super-sized nuclear warheads.” These comments make it abundantly clear that, despite the summits and meetings under Trump, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal continues to grow at an increasingly alarming rate.

Even more concerning, the North Korean leader mentioned the country’s aim of improving the accuracy rate of their long-range missile capabilities for targets up to 15,000 kilometers away – longer than the distance from Pyongyang to Washington D.C. This could result in the resumption of ICBM tests far out into the Pacific Ocean.

Kim Jong Un emphasized that continuing to strengthen the country’s military capabilities will be necessary “until the vicious cycle of the brink of war and detente, tension and dialogue is removed once and for all.” Nevertheless, he also reaffirmed that his country will not misuse its nuclear weapons “unless the aggressive hostile forces try to have recourse to their nuclear weapons against us.”

New Economic Policy Direction

Another key development brought about by the Congress was an updated economic plan for the next five years to improve the dire state of the North Korean economy. During the meeting, Kim admitted the government’s failure to successfully implement and achieve all economic goals previously set forth during the 2016 Workers’ Party Congress. However, he was careful not to take the blame himself and instead pointed the finger at external factors.

According to Kim, “people’s living standards could not be improved remarkably” due to “protracted severe external and internal situations and in the face of unexpected challenges,” KCNA stated. According to North Korean state media, the main reason why the nation’s five-year economic plan failed was due to “the most barbarous sanctions and blockade by the U.S. and other hostile forces.”

In order to turn things around, Kim promised to strengthen the metal and chemical industries, modernize the agricultural industry, and further develop machine and mining industries. “The main seed and theme of the plan are, as always, self-reliance and self-sufficiency,” KCNA stated.

Kim also expressed his intention to strengthen the tourism industry. To this end, he stated that it would be “necessary to spruce up tourist attractions, improve methods of giving publicity to them and arrange diversified tourist courses and guidance.” He also mentioned various plans to build and develop areas for tourism purposes.

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Closer Ties With Traditional Allies

During the Congress, Kim also used the occasion to speak about the country’s foreign relations, particularly with its traditional socialist allies. Kim particularly celebrated DPRK-China relations, saying the two nations had “opened a new chapter in the DPRK-China relations of friendship with socialism as its core.”

North Korea’s ties China have been improving steadily ever since Kim’s relationship with Trump broke down after the failed Hanoi Summit. As recently as last October, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his intentions to further deepen relations with Pyongyang. It is likely Kim and Xi will continue to strengthen bilateral ties in 2021, especially if Biden fails to make North Korea a priority soon after taking office.

Besides China, Kim also made special mention of Russia, mentioning how the Workers’ Party “worked on the development of friendly and cooperative relations between Russia and the DPRK.” Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin held their first ever summit in 2019, a move some analysts say was a message to show the United States that North Korea had other, more cooperative, partners on its side. Relations further improved in 2020 when Putin awarded Kim with a medal for his efforts “to preserve the memory of Soviet citizens” who lost their lives in the country. Like with China, North Korea is likely to continue cultivating its alliance with Russia further in 2021.

Little Mention of South Korea

Despite his very long and elaborate speeches at the Congress, Kim Jong Un, once again, did not signal any particular wish to get closer to his southern neighbors any time soon. Although South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has been trying to increase inter-Korean engagement throughout his time in office, North Korea has repeatedly shown more interest in talks with the United States and has often ignored Seoul’s calls for cooperation.

According to KCNA, Kim said that inter-Korean relations “have been brought back to the time before the publication of the Panmunjom Declaration and the hope for national reunification has become more distant,” referring to the agreement signed with Seoul in 2018. He also called South Korea out for “going against the implementation of the north-south agreement” by introducing “latest military hardware” and undertaking joint military exercises with the United States.

A report on Kim’s speeches during the Congress by KCNA also warned that if “the South Korean authorities continue to label our action ‘provocation’ with a double-dealing and biased mindset, we have no other option but to deal with them in a different way.”

High Stakes in 2021

Although vague, dealing with South Korea “a different way” does not sound very positive. Given the continued stalemate in U.S.-DPRK talks and Pyongyang’s clear disinterest in engaging with Seoul, it is likely to continue strengthening its alliances with both China and Russia. Moreover, given the clear focus on improving its military capabilities, the chances are now higher that Pyongyang may conduct various kinds of tests in 2021 if no progress is made with the United States.

The stakes are high, with North Korea adopting an increasingly assertive posture. Through this Congress, Kim has shared with the world his intentions not just for this year, but for at least the next five. Such meetings providing the outside world with policy plans and other detailed information are rare, and the Biden administration would do well to pay attention.

Kim Jong Un’s comments during the Congress have further shown that, despite the pandemic, North Korea remains a major threat, one that will only continue to grow if no diplomatic progress is made in the next 12 months.

Gabriela Bernal is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, South Korea. She is also a translator at Daily NK and her writings have appeared in various online media outlets. You can find her on Twitter @gabrielabbernal