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IFANS FOCUS Assessment of the Key Contents of the 8th Congress of the Workers’Party of Korea and North Korea’s Prospective Foreign Relations 이상숙 외교사연구센터 연구교수 발행일 2021-02-15 조회수 313
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I. The Key Contents and Assessment 
Ⅱ. Reorganization and Reshuffle 
Ⅲ. North Korea’s Prospective Foreign Relations after the 8th Party Congress 



The 8th Congress of the Workers’Party of Korea (WPK) was held from January 5 to 12, 2021. The Congress was the second such gathering in the Kim Jong-un era, and held first time in five years after the 7th Congress in May 2016. And the WPK’s leadership reshuffle decided at the congress was reaffirmed at the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) on January 17. This paper assesses the key results of the 8th Congress and party leadership reshuffle based on the overall project report of WPK Chairman Kim Jong-un and a congress statement, and explores North Korea’s prospective foreign relations. 


I. The Key Contents and Assessment 

The key decisions made at the 8th Congress can be classified into four major areas: politics, national defense, economy, and foreign relations. First, the 8th Congress solidified the Kim Jong-un regime’s monolithic ideological system. When his father Kim Jong-il was designated as the “Eternal General Secretary,”Kim Jong-un himself held the title of the WPK Chairman. At the 8th Congress, however, Kim Jong-un declared that he is entitled to the same position his father held as the “General Secretary of the Workers’Party of Korea.”At the same time, the 8th Party Congress changed the WPK’s Vice Chairman in each field to “Head Secretary,”and the  the Secretariat of the WPK replaced the Executive Policy Bureau to manage the work of the Politburo of the WPK. In addition, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s ideology was stated at the 7th Party Congress, and Kim Jong-un’s ideology of “People First”was stated as the ruling ideology at the 8th Party Congress.

Secondly, in terms of national defense, the Rules of the WPK clearly stated that the WPK should endeavor to strengthen national defense capabilities. Reporting at the Congress, Chairman Kim Jong-un said that North Korea’s efforts as fostering amicable international relations have faltered. He also underscored that peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula can only be achieved by relentlessly strengthening defense capabilities, and that North Korea reaffirmed its status as a nuclear power. What is noteworthy is that Chairman Kim Jong-un mentioned that the North has developed advanced nuclear tactical weapons such as super-large multiple rocket launchers and medium- and long-range cruise missiles. The development of tactical nuclear weapons could result in the inter-Korean military competition as they are highly likely to be used on a battlefield.

Thirdly, North Korea decided on a five-year development plan to develop its economy. The vision set at the 7th Congress of the WPK in 2016 was to establish North Korea as a socialist powerhouse. To that end, the 7th Party Congress underscored that North Korea should endeavor to become the powerhouse in terms of political ideas, technologies, economy, and civilization. At the 8th Party Congress, however, the long-term vision for a socialist powerhouse disappeared. The overall project report at the 8th Party Congress acknowledged that there have been “serious flaws”in various projects, including economic development projects,  and established a five-year strategy to complement the decisions made at the 7th Party Congress. However, the North Korean economy is quite unlikely to face the devastating famine of the 1990s as it is equipped with a better functioning food supply chain and high share of intermediate goods. 

The 8th Party Congress ascribed the failure of North Korea’s economic development plan not only to external factors including the COVID-19 pandemic, the toughest economic sanctions, and natural disasters, but also to internal factors such as the ills of bureaucracy, passivism, and buck-passing. Assuming that external factors will have a long-term impact on the North Korean economy, the 8th Party Congress adopted a relatively passive strategy aimed at managing internal factors. In detail, the 8th Party Congress presented revitalization of local economies as a major means of economic development strategy. What’s worth noting with regard to the tourism industry is that the 8th Party Congress decided to implement future projects by itself based on its five-year plan even if it cannot be completed in a short period of time by eliminating all facilities constructed by the South in the Mount Kumgang area. 

Compared to the decisions made at 7th Party Congress by dividing the contents of the overall project report into political, military, economic, and foreign relations sectors, the scope and scale of projects in the military sector have expanded while efforts at advancing foreign relations have been scaled down. The key issues in each sector can be evaluated as follows. 

Firstly, the 7th Congress of the WPK declared in 2013 the “byungjin line (pursuit of simultaneous economic and nuclear development)”as its strategic route in 2013. However, the 8th Party Congress did not present a special strategic route. Rather, it stressed only “struggling tactics.”According to Professor Lee Dae-geun of Woosuk University, the “byungjin line”is the main strategic route stipulated in the Rules of the WPK while those declared at the third session of the 7th Plenary Meeting, on April 20, 2018, are sub-categorical routes not stipulated in the Rules of the WPK. For this reason, it is assumed that the 8th Party Congress was just intent on announcing a course of action based on struggling tactics, all of which are required in a new strategic environment. Based on the overall project report at the 8th Party Congress, it can be assumed that the Pyongyang regime under Kim Jong-un is still focusing on the economy. However, it seems that Pyongyang puts improving its foreign relations, which was regarded as a main tool of improving the North Korean economy, on the back burner for the time being. 

Secondly, the 8th Party Congress underscored North Korea’s “self-reliance first”policy as a major means of achieving its five-year economic development plan, and emphasized the partial recovery of central control of the state. Just as the 7th Party Congress did, the 8th Party Congress advocated the implementation of “self-reliance first”policy as well as the strengthening of its cabinet system. In particular, it is anticipated that the WPK will endeavor to regain partial control over the market because the 8th Party Congress announced that North Korea will build a socialist commercial system by restoring the government’s leading role and control in the state-run commercial sector. However, as the “Socialist Corporate Responsible Management System,”stipulated in North Korea’s Constitution, will likely operate, the basic framework of the North Korean economy, in which the state-led plan and market coexist, is anticipated to function in the years ahead. 

Thirdly, the 8th Party Congress declared an era of the “Our State First”principle, and redefined inter-Korean relations accordingly. North Korea’s official ruling ideology stipulated in the Rules of the WPK is rooted in the “People First”principle. But it appears that the “Our State First”principle is given much more important weight as North Korea’s ruling ideology and governing practice. At the 8th Party Congress, the WPK announced that the foreword of the Rules of the WPK has been revised as follows: “We made it clear that we will protect the stability and peaceful environment of the Korean Peninsula by eliminating fundamental military threats with strong defense capabilities in our struggle for reunification.”The revised foreword is not disclosed in entirety. But it is likely that the foreword was revised because the phrases including unification through “Uriminzokkiri,”referring to “our people from the same ethnic group,”and “United Front”tactics, are not compatible with the age of the “Our State First”principle.


Ⅱ. Reorganization and Reshuffle 

The focus of the reshuffle and reorganization decided at the 8th Party Congress was on establishing new organizations and restructuring the existing organizations. First of all, the 8th Party Congress expanded and reorganized the existing department of defense by strengthening the WPK’s military leadership, which shows the strengthening of the WPK’s control over the military. Secondly, the establishment of the WPK’s “Discipline Investigation Department”and the “Justice Department”seems to be aimed at “strengthening the WPK’s leadership and control over the discipline of the state and law enforcement.”This could be viewed as the same efforts made by the Communist Party of China, aimed at strengthening the rule of law.

Moreover, the fourth session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly on January 17, 2021, held immediately after the 8th Party Congress, changed the members of the cabinet to those in their 40s and 50s. This radical reshuffle stands in contrast to the 7th Party Congress which sought a gradual change of generations in the cabinet. Such difference shows that the 8th Party Congress was determined to enter a reform-oriented phase.  And compared to the 7th Party Congress, three members of the Politburo, the core of the WPK leadership, were filled with other figures except for Chairman Kim Jong-un, and Choe Ryong-hae, the Standing Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly. The number of members of the Politburo is the same as 14, but the 12 existing members, except for Oh Soo-yong, an economic expert, and Kim Young-chul, the Director of the United Front Department, were replaced, and generational change took place with the appointment of those in their 60s. The number of candidates for the Politburo was expanded from 9 to 11, and Kim Yo-jong was eliminated from the candidate list for the Politburo, but Foreign Minister Lee Sun-kwon remained as the candidate. 

Except for Kim Jong-un and Choe Ryong-hae, the Standing Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the five figures included in the Politburo at the 7th and 8th Congresses are: Lee Byung-chul with expertise in the defense industry; Park Tae-sung, the Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly; Oh Soo-yong, an economic expert; and two other military experts - Kim Young-chul and Lee Young-gil. The inclusion of the military elite Lee Byung-chul and an economic expert Kim Duk-hoon among the Politburo’s Standing Committee members has resulted in striking a balance between the military and economic elites. And Prime Minister Kim Duk-hoon replaced Pak Pong-ju as a member of the Politburo.


Ⅲ. North Korea’s Prospective Foreign Relations after the 8th Party Congress 

In his project report delivered at the 8th Party Congress, Chairman Kim Jong-un hailed the improvement of the U.S.-North Korea relations as one of the key achievements in foreign relations. But he did not mention any development in inter-Korean relations while hinting at the possibility of another “spring day”in inter-Korean relations as in 2018 if the South puts an end to hostile actions and implements the agreements with the North. This appears to be his strategy aimed at prodding the South to make more concessions or better offers. While the 7th Party Congress proposed inter-Korean military talks, the 8th Party Congress only called for the South’s implementation of the inter-Korean agreements, implying that the ball is now in the South’s court. And as the Secretary for inter-Korean relations was not appointed at the 8th Party Congress, it is anticipated that the WPK will discuss inter-Korean relations at the top leadership level presumably led by Kim Yo-jong, not by the Secretariat.

In line with this, the 8th Party Congress underscored that inter-Korean relations can only be improved when the South delays its joint military drills with the U.S. in March and makes detailed proposals containing its deepened commitments to helping improve the U.S.-North Korea relations. However, as such conditions are unlikely to be met, North Korea would not move first to improve the current inter-Korean relations. And the overall improvement of inter-Korean relations will likely be achieved by minimizing the negative impact of the possible improvements of the U.S.-North Korea relations or North Korea-China relations.

With regard to North Korea-China relations, the 8th Party Congress evaluated that the North had “strategic communication”with Beijing through five summit meetings. Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Kim Jong-un on January 11, and Chairman Kim expressed his gratitude for Xi’s message on January 12. In particular, considering that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the “Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty,”which is the symbol of North Korea-China relations, high-level visits between the two countries are anticipated. Moreover, economic cooperation will likely expand with the temporary re-opening of the border between the two countries once the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control to some extent. 

In the case of the U.S.-North Korea relations, it is important to note that the 8th Party Congress highlighted the improvement of the U.S.-North Korea relations through summit meetings as the WPK’s major diplomatic achievement. And it was underscored that joint declarations produced at the summits signalled a meaningful transition from hostile relations into more promising ones. The 8th Party Congress also emphasized the need to establish strategies meticulously in dealing with the U.S., which implies that the WPK is giving much more weight to the U.S.-North Korea relations than to inter-Korean relations. It seems that Pyongyang is in the preparatory stage to improve its relations with Washington. And it is anticipated that North Korea will accelerate efforts at improving its relations with the U.S. after it fleshes out its strategies.

However, the decline of the diplomatic elite’s political status within the WPK in the wake of the 8th Party Congress is anticipated to have a negative impact on working-level negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea in the future. Even if the Biden administration resumes negotiations on denuclearization centered on working-level negotiations in the future, the negotiations will likely be complicated due to the lack of flexibility because North Korean Foreign Ministry officials will likely exercise less authority and discretionary power in steering the future negotiations.


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#interKoreanrelation #8thpartycongress #USDPRKrelations #NorthKoreanpolitics #ChinaDPRKrations
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