Kim Jong-un has been the supreme leader of North Korea since December 2011, when his father Kim Jong-il was laid to rest. His highest office, however, is being the First Secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea. And now he announced a surprising step in this position.
The 33-year-old announced the first party convention of this party – the only party – since 1980 and observers are puzzled as to why.
International observers are particularly confused by this step because it involves many risks. The situation, most Westerners are aware of this, in North Korea is by no means great. In fact, it should probably be classified as dire. The North Korean provinces are extremely poor, there is a lack of food and of freedom and of any riches whatsoever. Most North Koreans, however, are not aware how bad the situation really is, especially as every travel requires a permit, even within North Korea itself. And since getting a permit borders on being impossible, most North Koreans do not venture very far from their particular region.
The party convention will change that. A total of about three thousand delegates from the provinces are expected to travel to the capital of Pyongyang. And Pyongyang, though not a glistening metropolis, is much richer than the rest of North Korea. Even more so, Pyongyang will be decorated especially for the party convention and thus look even richer to the delegates.
This will likely also be the first time that delegates get to meet one another and will be able to speak – though obviously there will be a great deal of observation involved and it is not clear how freely people will be able to speak. Nevertheless the convention at least offers the possibility that the delegates can discuss the problems in their provinces and the discontent with Kim’s politics.
So observers are anxious to see what the reason behind the party convention might be. It must obviously be meant to be a consolidation of Kim’s power and – much like every event in North Korea – a celebration of Kim himself.
And what will Kim say? According to the party statute, Marx and Lenin are still important figures and North Korea is meant to be a socialist country. But in effect it has not been like that for a long time. In reality, North Korea is merely a fascist dictatorship and Marx and Lenin have been eliminated not only from the constitution but also from the surroundings. Instead it was decreed that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are immortal, that Kim Il-sung is the eternal president and Kim Il-sung the eternal secretary general of the party. This shows that, at least formally, North Korea pretends to uphold the Soviet system.
Kim might need to underline that pretense, so as to reap continuous support by China – the socialist country that is most important to North Korea. While all the state organs in North Korea are mostly there as a pretense that pretense has always been important to the dictatorship. Party conventions are used to discuss the direction the country should take and to inform the leadership about the demands of the public.
At the last party convention, Kim Il-sung proposed a federation between North and South Korea but then, a few years later, Germany was unified. This is viewed as the most likely reason for not holding party conventions since 1980. No one can stop the dictatorship from lying about the economy – which indeed got a little better under Kim Jong-un – but even the most cunning dictator cannot pretend that the two Koreas were unified. Since North Korea believes that the US military in South Korea is the biggest hindrance to reunification, the dictatorship is considering a peace treaty with the United States. Now that Obama is leaving office, he might be willing to sign a deal. This is likely the last chance that Kim Jong-un has to make steps towards a reunification.
No matter what, the party convention will be strictly observed – both by foreigners, as well as by the North Korean secret police.