Korean Workers’ Party Congress: Getting the KPA under Control?


The following essay is the English language original of an essay I wrote for Newsweek Japan this month on the ruling (North) Korean Workers’ Party congress.

The argument I make is that the congress was an effort to revive the party in order to roll back the military. Songun may have kept Kim Jong Il from getting overthrown after the end of the Cold War, death of Kim Il Sung, and end of Soviet subsidies all cast into doubt the ability of North Korea to survive, but the cost was horrific. The military bankrupted the country as it pilfered, and when the famine hit in the late 1990s, there were resources for the regular population, and China had not yet fully stepped into the Soviet role of subsidizer-in-chief. The result was 10% of the population died.

Kim Jong Un couldn’t give a damn about his people, but he must know that military rent-seeking along the lines of songun means North Korea is either permanently dependent on China, with all the constraints on sovereignty that entails, or is permanently on the verge of famine, with all the risk of civil unrest that entails. The only way out is some internal growth, which means limiting the military’s rapacious appetite for the state budget and agricultural production. Hence, bringing back the party. It’s the only possible institutional counterweight to prevent NK from becoming a de facto military oligarchy.

That’s may big-picture interpretation of the congress. Tell me why I am wrong in the comments. The full essay follows the jump.


In early May, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (i.e., North Korea) held a party congress of its ruling Korean Workers’ Party for the first time since 1980. North Korea, in order to explain itself as a distinct Korean state from its far more prosperous southern cousin, must continue to use such arcane, cold war language. It must continue to the be the DPRK with an ideological party that propounds a philosophy radically distinct from the South. If it does not, it simply becomes a poorer, underdeveloped copy of the South with no obvious reason to continue as a separate state. Hence the party and this congress.

As irrelevant as it may be in 2016, as insignificant as it may seem in what is actually a totalitarian monarchy, the KWP’s continued existence plays an important legitimizing role. If the DPRK is just northern Korea, in the same way that the German Democratic Republic became just eastern Germany after the Berlin Wall fell, then why does a northern Korea even exist at all? East Germany, shorn of its communist, GDR identity, survived the Wall’s opening for less than a year. Post-ideological northern Korea – as opposed to the DPRK – would likely suffer the same fate. There is no reason for North Korea to exist, barring some ideology dramatically different from South Korea’s standard, modern offering of democracy, liberalism, and capitalism. So the party and its ideologues retain their value, even if the real ideology of North Korea is simply the whim of Kim Jong Un and his cronies.

The Decline of the Korean Workers’ Party

There was a time when the KWP was a genuine communist party. Kim Jong Un (ruler since 2011), and his father Kim Jong Il (ruled 1994-2011), may not have believed in communism or socialism, but the most important of the Kims, founder Kim Il Sung (ruled 1945-1994), probably did. Kim Il Sung made North Korea into a genuinely distinct state. Like North Vietnam or East Germany, North Korea was originally a competitive alternative to a nominally capitalist-democratic alternative during the Cold War. While East Germany lost that race, North Vietnam did not. West Germany emerged as a modern prosperous state that badly delegitimized its eastern competitor, which, in time, became dependent on it. But in Asia, the race between communism and capitalist democracy was much closer.

South Vietnam was a corrupt, cronyistic dictatorship, regardless of its alliance with the Americans. In the end, it lost decisively. Taiwan and South Korea were not obvious superior to their communist alternatives early in the Cold War. Kim Il Sung had reason to believe he and his DRPK might win the Korean competition. Indeed, after the Americans left Vietnam, Kim asked the Soviets and Chinese for permission to invade South Korea once again. For a few decades, North Korea was a genuine competitor to South Korea for the national imagination of Koreans, and the Korean Workers’ Party provided an intellectual framework.

All this began to fade however by the 1980s. By then, it was painfully obvious that North Korea had slipped very far behind. Communist ideology everywhere had become a sham, with rampant rentierism and corruption. In China, Deng Xiao Ping effectively ended Maoism and embraced the market by the 1980s. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension indicated that even the stalinist old guard there knew that communism had failed. In North Korea, Marxism-Leninism had given way to ‘Kimilsungism;’ the ‘ideology’ of North Korea increasing became whatever Kim Il Sung said. The KWP slid into disrepair.

The party’s nadir was the 1990s. Kim Il Sung died in 1994, and his son, Kim Jong Il, took power. Monarchic succession was an obvious problem for an ideology that condemned kingship as feudal backwardness. And Kim Jong Il did not have the regime connections, prestige, or charismas his father did. The collapse of east bloc communism at the time suggested the DRPK was next. To forestall this, and to forestall a coup from the elite of the North Korea military – the Korean People’s Army – Kim Jong Il dumped communism and promulgated his ‘military first’ (선군) policy. Instead of a communist economic state, North Korea would become a national security barracks fortress. The military would be brought into governance. It would share in both the spoils and the blame, tying it more closely to regime in order to prevent it from overthrowing the Kims. To lock-in the military’s status, Kim Jong Il wrote ‘military first’ into the constitution and never bothered to convene a party congress during his rule. The last congress before this one was in 1980.

The Wreckage of ‘Military-First’

The promotion of the military and reduction of the party achieved Kim Jong Il’s primary goal – there was no coup. Military-first essentially bought off the KPA brass. It was a bargain – the KPA would support (or at least tolerate) Kimist rule (with all the global alienation, privation, and erracticness that entails), in exchange for access to the Kimist lifestyle. As North Korea drifted from Marxism toward a vacuous ‘Kimilsungism,’ it had increasingly become corrupt. The neronian lifestyles of the Kim clan – liquor, women, foreign luxuries, and so on – had become notorious. Military-first cut the brass into these pleasures in exchange for their support for the regime.

But this military intrusion into North Korean governance had huge, unanticipated costs. The military’s increased role in government dramatically worsened the already severe problems of mismanagement and cronyism. Military elites began to compete with the state for access to resources, and build fiefdoms (such as control of mineral exports or lucrative fisheries in the Yellow Sea). The military ate up a larger and larger role of the national budget and gross domestic product. North Korea provides no formal numbers of course, but rumors abounded that under Kim Jong Il, the KPA absorbed somewhere between 30 and 40% of GDP. This is a staggering figure; by contrast, Japan spends around 1% of GDP on defense, South Korea 2.5%, and the United States 4%. Even the Soviet Union never spent such relative sums on its war machine. Such over-spending throttled the civilian economy under Kim Jong Il.

North Korea was never technocratic to begin with, but rent-seeking soldiers in charge so wrecked the economy that a massive famine occurred in the late 1990s, killing approximately 10% of the population. Growing mismanagement also worsened North Korea’s long-standing dependence on external assistance. So bad was it now that UN and occasional bilateral assistance were not enough. North Korea required regular, extensive subsidization (from China), without which a crisis akin to the famine might recur. This created obvious problems of growing Chinese influence over North Korean economy and politics.

Belligerent military hardliners in charge also pushed North Korea into extreme diplomatic isolation and sanction, exacerbating the need for China, and therefore Beijing’s leverage. And extensive militarization of the economy, budget, and governance ultimately threatened civilian (i.e., the Kim’s) control of the military itself. A decade ago, as Kim Jong Il’s health was obviously in decline, there was much speculation that North Korea had become a military oligarchy, with the Kim clan retained as figureheads.

The Revival of the KWP?

This is the disastrous situation which Kim Jong Un inherited five year ago. North Korea was poor, isolated, corrupt, economically stagnant, badly mismanaged, regularly on the verge of malnourishment, and dependent on foreigners, especially rising China. Military-first may have kept the Kimist monarchy/DPRK system from imploding after the Cold War, but the price was so high that it could not be a permanent solution.

The Kims may not care for their people, but a repeat of the famine would threaten both national and regime security. A permanently malnourished or starving population cannot serve in the military, and acute food insecurity could lead to food riots and national revolt. The alternative – permanent, heavy subsidization by China – comes with its own threats. It gives China leverage over the economy and, eventually, politics, and would allow China to threaten regime security whenever it chose by cutting off assistance.

If North Korea were not to become a third world failed state chronically on the edge of famine and civil unrest, nor a satrapy of China, it would have to change – specifically, it would have to push the military out of the economy, especially the budget, and, simultaneously, politics. Kim would need to claw back state resources from the military predator and put them into the economy to generate enough growth to forestall either a de facto Chinese take-over or a repeat of the 1990s.

We cannot know for sure of course, but I believe this is the reason for the revival of the Korean Workers’ Party this month – the first KWP congress since 1980. Kim Jong Un does not need the party to rule. His father ignored it for two decades. Nor does the party actually provide much ideological ‘work.’ Communism is long gone. North Korea’s ‘ideology’ today is more like a cultic deification of the Kim family, which has little to do with the ‘workers’ or ‘Korea.’

Instead the party is being revived to act as an institutional counterweight to the military. The KWP has the organization to mobilize the population for labor, and the ideological resources to indoctrinate them into ‘Kimism.’ These are powerful tools to roll back military influence. While the party did not govern North Korea well either, dictators are most secure when multiple agencies in their government compete for the great leader’s favor. Setting the party and the military against one another, while the Kims float above it all, is a wise institutional strategy.

A military rollback not only firms up Kimist control, it also liberates resources to re-ignite growth for the long-term strategic goal of loosening China’s hold. North Korea will never be free of China so long as it is both stagnant and sanctioned. Sanctions-relief would require giving up nuclear weapons, which Pyongyang will never do, because they provide an ultimate defense against external regime change. So internal growth is Pyongyang’s only other option. The North will always be dependent, but it can lessen that dependence if it can get its own economy moving again.

Nuclear weapons suit this rollback purpose as well. As definitive protection for the state, they obviate the need for a massive conventional force. The KPA can be stripped of resources without jeopardizing national security. Bringing the military under control is also likely the reason for the running purges of KPA brass since Kim took over.

The congress’ outcome supports this military-rollback-for-growth interpretation. There were no belligerent claims to nuke South Korea or the United States; nuclear weapons were explained as defensive only; and a five-year plan for growth was announced, the first since the 1980s. Getting North Korea back to growth is existential for the regime, which Kim Jong Un, unlike his father, seems to realize. The alternatives are becoming a satellite of China, or risking regular systemic break-downs akin to the 1990s. There is little choice.

1 thought on “Korean Workers’ Party Congress: Getting the KPA under Control?

  1. Pingback: “The Curious Love-Hate Relationship between China and North Korea” | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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