Under the presidence of Kim Jong-un, the DPRK’s 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party held its second plenary session on October 7, 2017. Discussions from the plenary session covered mainly two points: 1. Combatting the current state of affairs and 2. Organizational problems.
Highlights from the Plenary Session
Kim Jong-un’s determination to continue the parallel development policy of economy and nuclear weapons in the face of wavering public opinion and support for the system due to the tightened sanctions is clear.
According to coverage from the Korean Central News Agency, during the plenary session, Kim Jong-un analyzed and evaluated the major problems arising from the current complex international situation that has encircled North Korea, and presented a path for economic growth and ongoing steps to be taken by the party, while laying forth a strategic plan for achieving these goals.
The news coverage also stated that at the beginning of the session, Kim Jong-un once again declared North Korea’s nuclear weapons as “a sword of justice”, while also mentioning the UN resolutions strengthening on North Korea. He emphasized the need for the country to pursue parallel development while also urging North Korea “to work towards this historical achievement of obtaining nuclear weapon capabilities.” Despite the current difficulties facing party members and the people of North Korea, this can be seen as Kim Jong-un’s way of showing that there nothing has changed and he is reiterating his objective of perfecting the strategic use and deployment of nuclear weapons and missiles.
The North Korean leadership is expected to include more and more economic and diplomatic officials in its attempts to overcome future stricter sanctions.
Thae Jong-su, who was specially elected as a politburo member during this plenary session, is an expert in North Korea’s heavy chemical industry, while Ahn Jeong-su was the director of the WPK Light Industry for some time.
Seeing as these two men were elected to the politburo as Vice Chairmen in the Central Committee, it seems that the cabinet will be led by Thae Jong-su, and Pyeongyang’s light industry sector will be managed by Ahn Jeong-su.
Additionally Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho’s election to the politburo highlights the growing status of negotiators amongst party leadership.
This is an uncommon phenomenon in North Korea for the incumbent Foreign Minister to be promoted to the Politburo.
At last year’s 7th Party Congress (in 2016), Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong was appointed to the Politburo, this was a move to move him from the role of Foreign Minister to be the director of the party’s International Relations Department. When the current President of the Presidium, Kim Yong-nam was in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs he was also a member of the politburo, this was possible because when he was the party secretary dealing with international affairs he was already a member of the politburo and was able to keep his role in the party.
Former Foreign Minister Pak Seong-cheol and Heo dam, who became Politburo members, were two exceptions to this, as Pak Seong-cheol was a commander in Kim Il-sung’s anti-Japanese guerrilla army and Heo dam was the husband of Kim Il-sung’s younger cousin, Kim Jeong-suk.
In recent years, there have been other Foreign Ministers like Pak Ui-chun and Baek Nam-sun, but they were not promoted beyond the Central Committee.
Ri Yong-ho’s promotion to the politburo shows Kim Jong-un’s true motives of seeking dialogue with the US while at the same time preparing for increased contact with Chinese party officials using a person with a role within the party.
The older generations of 70-80 year-olds are gradually being pushed out as North Korean party leadership begins filling its seats with 50-60 year-olds.
Using this plenary session as an opportunity, it appears that Kim Gi-nam, the secretary for the Propaganda and Agitation Department for several decades, has given his seat up to Choe Hwi; the Education Secretary Choe Thae-bok gave his seat to Pak Gwang-ho, and Head of the party Organization Leadership Department Jo Yeon-jun was passed over to Pak Thae-seong.
The party’s economy control tower, too, seems to have been transferred from Oh Su-yong and Gwak Beom-gi to Thae Jong-su and Ahn Jong-su.
In terms of the party’s foreign policy, the international division and Vice Chairman Ri Su-yong’s position has weakened as Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and the Foreign Ministry has become more consolidated and the core of the foreign relations policy control tower.
At this plenum, the head of the State Security Department Kim Won-hong was dismissed from his position in the Politburo, and his seat will likely be filled by either Jeong Gyeong-thaek or Jang Gil-seong.
It also seems that the State Security Department’s internal leadership structure has been completely restructured.
Despite the fact that the current sanctions on North Korea have led to worsening problems for the economy, the government has yet to propose any clear countermeasures to combat such difficulties.
According to North Korean news coverage, Kim Jong-un’s report to the plenary session consisted of 20 sentences, 5 of which were related to the current sanctions. This means that more than 20% of Kim Jong-un’s remarks were related to the problems of overcoming such sanctions.
Nonetheless, measures by the government to overcome sanctions lacked any major changes, and instead continued to focus on unity, self-reliance, science and technology, improved operational commands in the cabinet, and the party’s militant capabilities and strengthened role.
Although it is still too early to know in detail which problems were actually discussed at the plenary session, North Korean news reported that ‘strategical plans and measures’ were proposed to combat sanctions. However, little has changed, and it seems that the present North Korea still has no substantive measures to overcome sanctions.
North Korea’s future path
North Korea announced that it would achieve nuclear weapon capabilities in the shortest time possible and complete its goal of miniaturizing nuclear heads and fully developing ICBMs.
Kim Jong-un once again urged the country “to work towards this historical achievement of obtaining nuclear weapon capabilities”
Although North Korea has begun to feel the effects of the current sanctions, it will take at least another year for them to feel the need to return to the table for dialogue. North Korea will likely declare completion of its nuclear weapons program within the first half of 2018 and return to dialogue sometime from the latter half of 2018.
As such, the next six months will be a critical time for the situation on the Korean peninsula.
It is likely that North Korea will continue with its strategy of Tongmibongnam, which is to contain South Korea and engage in dialogue with the US.
Recent events in North Korea show that the head of the South Korean Department Kim Yeong-cheol’s status has weakened significantly while Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho’s has strengthened.
This shows that both Kim Jong-un and internal discussions have placed greater emphasis on Ri Yong-ho’s Foreign Ministry whereas those in the line of South Korean affairs has received less focus.
The current analysis of North Korea suggests that as long as North Korea opens up dialogue with the US and doesn’t dismantle UN sanctions, it will be difficult for South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration to bring about reconciliation and large-scale exchanges with North Korea like the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
- Given the current situation of UN sanctions on North Korea, it is imperative that they continue to be strictly implemented so as to make North Korea truly feel the effects of the sanctions and return to the table on their own for negotiations.
- South Korea must manage the US so as to not be left out of the dialogue or allow the US conduct under the table negotiations with North Korea in which they may come to an undisclosed compromise.
- South Korea must strengthen its communications with China, and China must not force the US to accept the ‘freeze for freeze’ agreement which would first recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and then gradually work towards its denuclearization.
Overall, time is on our side. If the current sanctions continue to be strictly implemented for just one more year, South Korea will be able to take initiative and will be in the driver’s seat of resolving North Korea’s nuclear weapons problem.