N. Korea Holds Key Party Meeting
North Korea held the third plenary session of the eighth Central Committee of the Workers’ Party from June 15 to 18. While wrapping up the meeting, leader Kim Jong-un pledged to overcome economic difficulties, saying that the party will break through the ongoing obstacles lying in the way of the revolution. Here is Cho Han-bum, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, to explain the significance of the latest party meeting, the third of its kind this year alone.
North Korea convened the first and second plenary sessions of the eighth Central Committee of the party in January and February, respectively, followed by the third one this month.
The country had never held the session on three different occasions in such a short period of time. It has also held the party’s Central Military Commission meeting twice in the last six months. This reflects the serious situation inside North Korea. Discussion topics of those meetings were concentrated on economic problems and pandemic-related efforts. The key agenda of the latest plenary session was economic challenges and food shortages.
One of the most attention-grabbing parts of the meeting was on who would fill the new post of “first secretary” of the party. North Korea revised party rules in January to authorize a plenary session of the party’s Central Committee to elect the first secretary and other secretaries. The first secretary is referred to as deputy of the general secretary, who is leader Kim Jong-un. Jo Yong-won, secretary for organizational affairs of the party’s central committee, or Kim Yo-jong, the leader’s powerful sister and vice department director of the committee, were considered strong candidates for the new post. But the appointment to the position was never mentioned at the latest party conference.
The first secretary post is, in effect, a No.2 position right behind the top leader. In case of emergency, such as the leader’s death, the first secretary will assume the role of the general secretary and exercise real power. North Korea has never officially approved a second-in-command, so the appointment to the first secretary might place a political burden on the country.
The new position was created in January when North Korea revised party rules at the party congress. The North could have appointed the first secretary at the time or during the second plenary session in February. Naming the first secretary wasn’t really the purpose of the recent party meeting, and it seems the post remains vacant.
On the first day of the latest party session, leader Kim Jong-un made a rare acknowledgement of food shortages, saying that the people’s food situation is becoming difficult.
On the third day of the meeting, the leader issued a special order calling for stabilizing the people’s livelihoods, describing it as a decisive measure aimed at quickly resolving the urgent problems of the people. Clearly, improving public livelihoods and overcoming economic difficulties comprised the main agenda of the meeting.
North Korea appears to be facing a severe food shortage, which the leader officially admitted for the first time ever. In the North, rice was typically priced at the lower 4,000-won range per kilogram and corn, at the lower 2,000-won range per kilogram. But as of June 15, rice and corn prices per kilogram jumped to 7,000 won and 5,300 won, respectively, marking the highest level under Kim Jong-un’s ten-year rule. I assume that the food situation in North Korea is so serious that the country can’t solve it on its own. The local media released a photo of the leader holding up a special order that he had signed himself. I imagine the special order could mean some emergency measures, such as providing citizens with wartime food supplies that are stored in the “No.2 warehouse.”
During the latest party meeting, the North Korean leader sent his first direct message to the Biden government. On the third day of the meeting on June 17, Kim Jong-un said that his country should get prepared for both dialogue and confrontation, especially for confrontation in order to protect the dignity of the state and its interests for independent development and to reliably guarantee the peaceful environment and the security of the state. He also stressed the need to focus on the stable management of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
According to the North Korean media report, Kim analyzed the Biden administration’s new North Korea policy. Details were not revealed, but Kim used the words “dialogue” and “confrontation” and also said that his country would manage the situation on the Korean Peninsula in a stable manner.
The message is considered more moderate than expected, indicating that Pyongyang is responding positively to Washington’s North Korea policy focused on diplomacy and dialogue. The stable management of the Korean Peninsula means that North Korea will refrain from provocations. That’s an unexpected response.
The recent G7 summit called for the verifiable and irreversible abandonment of North Korea’s unlawful weapons of mass destruction and also urged North Korea to respect human rights for all. The North Korean human rights issue was also mentioned at the South Korea-U.S. summit in May. It was widely believed that these topics would draw an angry response from the North. Contrary to the expectations, though, Kim Jong-un mentioned “dialogue” and “confrontation,” meaning that his country is actually committed to dialogue. It is very unusual for North Korea to use the expression, “stable management of the Korean Peninsula,” in particular. I think the North has shown a forward-looking attitude.
Meanwhile, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim has reiterated Washington’s offer to meet with North Korea without preconditions. During his five-day South Korea visit that started on June 19, he said that he looks forward to a positive response from North Korea. But the North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong made a negative response on June 22, rebuffing Washington’s proposal of unconditional talks. Notably, her statement was announced during Sung Kim’s visit to South Korea. It seems Pyongyang is closely watching Washington’s dialogue offer.
Both the U.S. and North Korea do not want to aggravate the situation first. But the former seeks unconditional dialogue, while the latter wants to set some preconditions. North Korea engaged in unconditional talks with the former Donald Trump administration, only to fail to reach any agreement.
The North believes that it was exploited by the U.S., and it thinks it will not participate in dialogue for dialogue’s sake. That is, North Korea wants to return to talks only when it can confirm what it will gain, but the U.S. does not say what it can offer for now. With the two sides staging a war of nerves, South Korea is in a position to coordinate their views.
There are two possibilities. First, the current stalemate in North Korea-U.S. negotiations may continue. Second, the two countries may resume their working-level contact soon. At present, North Korea is facing a severe food shortage. Even if it may resolve the food problem somehow, it will be difficult for the country to address other issues unless international sanctions are lifted. For North Korea, the only solution is to find a breakthrough in its relations with the U.S. The Moon Jae-in government in South Korea, for its part, is strongly committed to pushing for its own peace initiative. Therefore, I’d say that regional diplomacy has entered a dialogue phase.
Despite Kim Yo-jong’s negative statement, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price says that it has not changed Washington’s view on diplomacy, adding that the U.S. will have to wait and see if these comments are followed up with any more direct communication about a potential path forward. It remains to be seen whether the exchange of those words between the two countries may lead to their direct communication.