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N. Korea’s Workers’ Party Revises Rules

#Issues l 2021-06-10

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

The Workers’ Party in North Korea revised its rules during the eighth party congress in January. At the time, only part of the revision was known, but more about the revision has recently been unveiled. Here is Cha Du Hyeogn, chief of the Center for Foreign Policy and National Security at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, to explain. 


The rules of the Workers’ Party were established in 1946 when the party was created. The communist party is more powerful than any other political force in the socialist country. Therefore, the party rules have the same effect of the constitution or even prevail over the constitution, with the party’s autocracy guaranteed by the state. North Korea has revised its party rules at almost every party convention. The latest revision symbolizes that the era of Kim Jong-un has arrived, both in name and reality. 


The most attention-grabbing part of the revision is the creation of a new post, “first secretary of the party.” The first secretary is stipulated as deputy of the general secretary of the party, who is leader Kim Jong-un. It is the first time ever that North Korea has installed a position at the party right behind the top leader. 


Kim Jong-un himself had assumed the post of first secretary right after his father and former leader Kim Jong-il died in late 2011. It seems the creation of the “first secretary” post is aimed at further strengthening the authority of the general secretary. It isn’t really important who is elected as first secretary. To become the first secretary, other secretaries will intensely compete to show loyalty to the leader, only to reinforce the leader’s power. Regarding the creation of the new post, some speculate that Kim Jong-un is considering designating a successor. But I think the speculation goes too far. 


Also notably, the revised party rules refrain from using words related to one-man leadership or a cult of personality. In fact, the names of the two former leaders and their achievements repeatedly appeared in previous party regulations. But in the recently amended rules, the names of the former “supreme leaders” are not mentioned often. 


Expressions associated with one-man leadership or juche ideology have been dropped. It shows current leader Kim Jong-un’s confidence that he can govern the country under his own name without depending on his father and grandfather. The revised rules do not highlight the personality cult too much, in a move to plant an image of North Korea as a normal state inside and outside the country. 


North Korea also replaced the word “songun” or “military-first” politics with “people-first” politics in its party rules. Songun was the major policy pursued by former leader Kim Jong-il. The new party rules show that the current leader is seeking to step out of his predecessor’s shadows. In the same context, North Korea has recently removed the names of the two former leaders from the title of a youth organization governed by the party and used the words “socialist patriotic” in the title instead. 


North Korea’s emphasis on economic development is also seen in the new party regulations. Previous party rules underlined the need to pursue the so-called “parallel policy” of the simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and the economy. The new rules, on the other hand, urge the party to spur economic development under the slogan of self-rehabilitation. 


During the party convention in January, Kim Jong-un admitted the failure in the five-year economic development plan. For now, the most important task of North Korea is to rebuild its economy. But it is very challenging for the communist state to do so, due to international sanctions as well as its own internal, structural problems. North Korea regards the sanctions as outside pressure and it seeks to tackle the difficulties and develop the economy by boosting its own capabilities. That’s why the North places so much emphasis on “self-reliance.” 


Attention was also drawn to unification-related parts in the revised party rules. The previous party regulations used the expression, “achieve the task of national liberation and a democratic revolution on a nationwide level.” But this expression was replaced by the phrase “achieve the task of independent and democratic development on a national scale.” Interpretations vary as to how the change may influence North Korea’s policy toward the South. 


In regards to the disappearance of the phrase “national liberation and a democratic revolution,” some say that North Korea has probably discarded its theory of revolutionizing South Korea. But I don’t think so. The previous phrase involves two different scenarios. First, North Korea would strengthen its military capabilities to achieve unification. Second, it would prod anti-government forces within South Korea into fighting against the government. But the second scenario is impossible, considering the current situation in South Korea. Now, the North will seek to change South Korea’s system radically using coercive measures. Achieving unification through military force is what North Korea claims to be revolution. So basically, its theory of revolutionizing South Korea remains unchanged. 


Through the revision alone, it’s difficult to figure out North Korea’s relations with the outside world overall. But most analysts say that the country focuses more on domestic affairs for now than on its foreign policy strategy. 


It seems North Korea hopes to show to the outside world that it is a normal socialist state. The revised party rules show that the current leader is trying to stay away from his predecessors and craft his own ideology. For that purpose, I imagine he will make greater efforts to strengthen his power. Judging from North Korea’s commitment to developing the economy independently without outside help and its intention to take the lead in inter-Korean relations, future prospects for cross-border ties are not very bright. The same is true of North Korea-U.S. relations. The two countries are engaging in a fierce war of nerves over the resumption of their negotiations. It is hard to expect a North Korea-U.S. summit anytime soon. 


Through the recent revision to the Workers’ Party regulations, Kim Jong-un has proclaimed his own leadership style. It remains to be seen how it may influence North Korea’s politics and diplomacy.

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