“Rubber-stamping” party conference update

Andrei Lankov writes in the Korea Times:

So, the third conference of the Korean Workers Party is officially scheduled to open on Tuesday ― at least, this is what the North Korean media reported last week.

The conference is expected to announce the new leadership which, at all probability, will include Kim Jong-il’s third son and his likely successor Kim Jong-un. The young man, now in his late 20s, will be formally introduced to the people and, perhaps, formally anointed as a “genius of leadership, fully capable of continuing the great Juche revolutionary tradition” (I am not sure about wording, but it will be flowery enough).

However, why do they need a party conference to have this announcement? Yes, it is true that Kim Jong-il himself was once anointed by a party congress (an enlarged version of a party conference) in 1980. But, on the other hand, when Kim Jong-il’s final promotion to the supreme leadership after his father’s death and three years of mourning took place in 1997, the North Korean autocrats did not bother to hold a conference or congress.

The coming conference might be another signal of a trend which was discussed by Pyongyang watchers recently: after years of relative neglect, Party is beginning to make a comeback.

Indeed, North Korea was initially established to be a typical Leninist party-state. In such a state, the Central Committee, as party’s central headquarters were known, controls everything and is clearly above the government, even though the Constitution does not even have references to such institutions as “Central Committee” or “Politburo.”

On paper, the Central Committee is a group of few hundred top bureaucrats who are elected by a party congress or party conference and who are supposed meet a few times a year to have the so-called “plenary session,” and also to elect a small permanent standing committee, known as Politburo.

However, as many other formal arrangements, those are seriously misleading. To start with, party congress or conference does not really elect candidates, but obediently and unanimously (always unanimously) vote for a pre-arranged list. Second, the infrequent ‘plenary sessions’ of the Central Committee are formal and ritualistic affairs, where participants sometimes hint at real issues but much more frequently spend time professing their loyalty to the current leadership. A communist state is run not by the “Central Committee” as such, but by its “Secretariat,” a large bureaucratic institution, whose top officials are appointed by the Politburo and/or party’s leader.

So, the top bureaucracy in a communist state is self-appointed. Politburo and its top leader appoint the Secretariat officials who are managing the country and those, in turn, appoint officials at lower levels. Usually, it is the top leader who makes most important decisions, but if a leader is weak, or absent, or just died, the Politburo (about dozen people, usually) can act as a collective dictator.

If the country is run by Politburo and Secretariat bureaucrats alone, why does it need to held congresses and the Central Committee “plenary sessions”? This is a good question. In the Soviet Union by some reasons they never asked this question and continued with the meaningless routine of congresses and plenary sessions.

In North Korea the leaders showed themselves to be more pragmatic and for a while it looked as if they decided to get rid of these formalities altogether. The last congress took place in 1980. The last party conference took place in 1966. It seems certain that after the death of his father in 1994, Kim Jong-il never even bothered to call a plenary session of the Central Committee and run the country via party bureaucracy which he appointed at will and with complete disregard for formalities.

And now we see the revival of the old (and, frankly, purely decorative) tradition. Why is it happening? The most likely explanation is that the old guard, the North Korean aging top bureaucrats, now have to think what will happen after the death of Kim Jong-il whose health seems to be deteriorating fast. Their major worry is, first, how to keep the country under control and, second, how to preserve one’s own power and privilege.

If this is the case, an existence of formally “elected” and hence more legitimate Central Committee will help. It is also remarkable that the person who seems to be best positioned to become the Prince Regent, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law Cang Song-taek, is clearly a party man who cannot rely on the military to legitimize his power.

So, it is possible that in the next few years we will see a lot of the good old political shows, which the world has not seen since the collapse of the communist bloc. We will see party congresses, and Central Committee plenary sessions, and a lot of “elections” (with pre-arranged results). The party might be coming back, even though it is not clear whether it will make any difference as long as the actual policy is concerned.

Previous posts on the delay in the conference opening can be found here.

Read the full story here:
Rubber-stamping session
Korea Times
Andrei Lankov


An affiliate of 38 North