What to expect from North Korea’s Party Congress: Millennials, maybe some ‘dead’ men, but no HBO

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects a parachute regiment in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2013.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects a parachute regiment in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2013.

(Korean Central News Agency)

North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party announced Wednesday it will hold its first Party Congress in 36 years, starting on May 6 in the capital, Pyongyang. As the high-profile gathering nears, South Korean officials say another nuclear test by the regime could be imminent.

We asked Michael Madden, editor of the website North Korea Leadership Watch and a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, about what to expect from the congress, how it relates to North Korea’s recent nuclear test and missile tests, and what the world may learn about ruler Kim Jong Un during the gathering.

Why have this formal event now? There hasn’t been once since 1980.

They’ve had party conferences, including one in 2010, when Kim Jong Un had his big public debut to the world. They had one in 2012. Those sort of took the place of a congress.


Kim Jong Un is more of a showman than his father, Kim Jong Il. His father didn’t give speeches on national television, and he certainly didn’t address people attending military parades in Pyongyang. This congress fits with Kim Jong Un’s style of leadership — to have a big event in which he’s most likely to give a speech.

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Kim Jong Un is leading North Korea with a relative degree of transparency. This doesn’t mean we’re going to get to see pictures of him and his wife sitting by the fireplace and eating chestnuts. But we are seeing a lot of things that his father kept very secret.

He’s shown us the family jewels of the nuclear weapons program. But also, for example, when they had the recent rocket launch, they had a big banquet in Pyongyang. We saw the inside of the central committee’s dining hall. You didn’t see that under his father. It’s North Korea, so it’s a relative degree of transparency, but it’s transparency.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the new Youth Movement Museum at an undisclosed location in North Korea in January.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the new Youth Movement Museum at an undisclosed location in North Korea in January.

(Korean Central News Agency)

Is Kim Jong Un’s leadership style different?

Kim Jong Un is ruling North Korea through more formal channels than his father did. His father ruled North Korea in open violation of the constitution and the Worker’s Party bylaws or charter. He never held central committee meetings; he held one political bureau meeting in his 17-year tenure.

Kim Jong Un has held multiple meetings of the political bureau, held a couple meetings of the central committee, he’s held meetings of the central military commission, and they publicize them, show them to us through the state media. It’s about showing North Koreans and outside observers how policy decisions are made. It’s not just one person signing a bunch of instructions and faxing them off, which is what his father did. It’s a more formal way, it’s more like how his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, ruled.

So does Kim Jong Un think the way his father ruled was ineffective or dangerous?

The problem with Kim Jong Il’s rule, and Kim Jong Un realized this quickly, is that it was based on Kim Jong Il’s personality. Whereas Kim Il Sung had bylaws and the constitution, stuff he could rule under — it was organized, and based on the Soviet Union model, just tweaked here and there.

When Kim Jong Il started to accumulate political power in the 1970s, a lot of things became more informal. There were back channels.

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This way of ruling was suited to Kim Jong Il’s personality. He could have 30 close aides in his office handling different policy and security related portfolios. He could keep track. He was a micromanager. There are numerous accounts of factory managers getting phone calls from Kim Jong Il in the middle of the night.

Kim Jong Un was aware that way Kim Jong Il ruled created a lot of fiefdoms — a lot of subordinates had a lot more autonomy, because they were deputized by the leader to do things. That’s how you get a wayward uncle who starts accumulating power and money for himself and then disobeys the leader. That’s why Kim’s uncle, Jang Sung Taek, was executed in 2013.

Kim Jong Un’s personality is not really suited to managing these moving parts and so he’s creating more formal lines of control and authority.

North Koreans lay flowers at the base of statues of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung, and late leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in December 2013 to commemorate the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death.

North Koreans lay flowers at the base of statues of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and late leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in December 2013 to commemorate the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death.

(David Guttenfelder / Associated Press)

So what is the Worker’s Party Congress? What will happen at it?

The Party Congress is the highest “power organ” of the Worker’s Party of Korea. They are going to do two things. First, they are going to revise the party charter. The party controls the government, policymaking, appointment of officials in government and the military. They are going to revise the charter and the way that the party is organized, and how it leads the government and military.

The second thing is they are going to appoint members of “power” organizations, i.e., members of the party central committee, the highest authority in North Korea. They will appoint the political bureau, the secretary, and the central military commission.

Kim Jong Un will likely come out as chairman of the military commission and a member of the political bureau standing committee, and be called “the first secretary,” which means he’s the leader of the party.

It’s not going to be a huge personnel shuffle. The big personnel shuffle we’ll probably see will occur in the central committee candidate, or alternate, members. Most likely, many of the alternate members will be millennials. There have already been a few millennial-age people appointed in North Korea’s power structure and we’ll probably see millennials starting to populate the ranks. We’ll see a demographic shift in terms of age.

Some of these millennials are skillful; they’ve had international education, they’ve studied outside the country. They might know some tricks that they’re going to try to pull off.

Kim Jong Un is a millennial supreme leader, he’s a bonafide millennial.

How do the recent nuclear tests relate to this?

The fact that they launched a rocket and they put something into space, put something into low-earth orbit, is a pretty big accomplishment for Kim Jong Un. They’ve done that twice since he became leader. Whether those satellites work or not is a different question, but they got the things up there. And they’ve had two nuclear tests, possibly another one in the next 10 days. These are achievements he can talk about in his speech.

The party charter places a pseudo-religious premium on what the Worker’s Party stands for and how the party relates to the North Korean population, how it views its relations with South Korea and the United States. They are probably going to put in a preamble in the charter that will enshrine nuclear weapons in North Korea’s nuclear policy as something that’s nonnegotiable.

What might we learn about Kim’s plans for the government and economy?

It’s going to be a tease more than anything. They are not going to say we’re going to let HBO and MTV be broadcast in the country. There’s not going to be Coca-Cola and McDonald’s in Pyongyang, although Kim Jong Un drinks Coca-Cola. The foreign minister gave an interview to [Associated Press] last week. They’re going to talk about the domestic economy and foreign trade.

They’re going to reorganize the way the party does business with the government and how they set policy. They’re going to put in a framework, in very opaque language, whereby North Korea can begin the process of reforming or modifying many of its economic policies. That will be a key thing.

They will still pursue the two-line strategy of developing nuclear weapons and domestic economy. A lot of external observers will say those are incongruous goals. But as far as North Korea is concerned, they’re going to try to do both.

They’ve already done some things. They’ve done some economic — I don’t want to say reform and opening up, because North Koreans hate that and it’s not accurate — but they’ve done some policy modifications, but didn’t publicize them through state media. Possibly because they’re superstitious and if it was a disaster, you don’t want to make an announcement if there’s a huge screw up, it would look bad for Kim Jong Un.

They’ve had modest growth rates, 1%, 2%, 3%, in the last few years. They’ll pursue that more after the congress.

An image made available March 4 by the North Korean news agency shows the test firing of new type large-caliber multiple-launch rocket system.

An image made available March 4 by the North Korean news agency shows the test firing of new type large-caliber multiple-launch rocket system.

(Korean Central News Agency)

What would be surprising? Might we see some ghosts come back to life?

We might get confirmation about who in fact has been executed in North Korea in last three to four years. We’ve heard rumors of people getting shot by anti-aircraft artillery or eaten by dogs. When we have a congress, it’s a major national event, and sometimes an opportunity for people who have been rumored to have be executed or incarcerated, to come back into public life.

That’s happened a couple times in the last year, when they had a major national event, like a key funeral, and they publish the names of officials, six or seven people that South Korean intelligence said were dead or had been purged … they turn up at the funeral walking around. That will be something to watch for.

When Kim Jong Un took power formally in 2012, a lot of senior officials just disappeared. South Korean intelligence and other analysts were going on about these people being purged. Or in prison. But Kim Jong Un, one of the changes he made was that when his dad was in charge some of these guys had their jobs for life. That led to a bunch of problems. He couldn’t get them out of their jobs. When Kim Jong Un took power, some of these senior officials, rather than letting them die in office, they got golden parachutes from the regime, they got some money and were told they could keep their nice houses, be state heroes.

Lo and behold, that’s what happened to these people. They got golden parachutes. So part of next week will be tracking some of these supposedly dead or purged people and see if they show up.

How will the West interpret this event, particularly if North Korea enshrines the nuclear weapons in the party charter?

In terms of external relations, a lot is not going to change. North Korea is going to continue being North Korea. They will maintain that the U.S. needs to remove its hostile policy toward the country.

One interesting thing that was largely missed by a lot of people was about a month and a half ago, Kim Jong Un attended a mobile missile test, a SPoD test, a Sea Point of Demarcation test. That’s a fancy way of saying if North Korea should see a U.S. naval personnel carrier pulling up in the port of Busan, in South Korea, North Korea basically said, ‘We are going to nuke that ship, because we will interpret that as an invasion of our country.’

They’ve revised North Korea’s nuclear doctrine from being… what they used to say was a deterrent or self defense, to being something they’ll consider using preemptively. They’ve continued to subtly ratchet that rhetoric up. That’s one thing we might see happen at the Party Congress, they might change their geostrategic position toward the United States.

In terms of President Obama and South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye, North Korea is always happy to talk to the U.S., and they do on the record and there’s a lot of interaction off the record. But North Korea is going to wait out Obama and Park. He’ll be out in less than a year and she’ll be out in 2018.

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman gives interviews in January 2014 from a hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman gives interviews in January 2014 from a hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea.

(David Guttenfelder / Associated Press)

They’d rather deal with Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?

I think North Korea would rather deal with Hillary Clinton and possibly Trump.

This will strike you as strange, but the North Korean elites pride themselves on whether they have a personal relationship with someone. In North Korea, everything depends on your personal relationship with the Kim family. And so there’s these connections to Hillary Clinton and Trump.

With Trump, they have Dennis Rodman [who traveled to North Korea multiple times since Kim Jong Un took power]. Rodman was on the “Celebrity Apprentice” and endorsed Trump and referred to him as his friend.

To a certain degree, Rodman is a compromised entity. But they can say they’re 2 degrees away from President Trump.

I don’t know what Trump’s actual relationship is with Rodman, but the North Korean intelligence service collects this information for the leadership, and they’ve definitely made that connection. People joke about Rodman being an emissary to North Korea — and I don’t think he’s going to negotiate nuclear policy — but at the same time it’s a personal connection that North Koreans will watch closely.

And Bill Clinton traveled in 2009 to North Korea and met with Kim Jong Il to get the two American detainees out of there. So they also again have their 2 degrees away. That means a lot to North Korea. That’s something they think they can leverage in terms of terms of establishing a rapport and interactions.

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