Lankov offers party conference wrap-up

Writing in the Korea Times:

So, in late September North Korea’s ruling Korea Workers’ Party (KWP) had its third conference, the first such high level conference to take place in 30 years, since a party congress in 1980.

It was an interesting show, so for the next few weeks or months North Korean specialists will be busily analyzing the new information which emerged, as well as the conference significance and its likely impact on the future of North Korea.

But one thing should be admitted now: the conference turned out to be not exactly what most people expected (albeit, admittedly, it came close enough).

Since congresses and conferences are exceptional events in North Korea, it was widely predicted that this conference was convened to make some extraordinary statements ― otherwise, why would they have it? However, as it turned out, the results of the KWP conference ― while interesting and important ― can hardly be described as extraordinary.

Most observers expected that the decision to convene the conference had something to do with a dynastic succession which has begun to unroll in North Korea. There were even speculations that Kim Jong-il himself would abdicate, thus giving power to his third son and successor Kim Jong-un. This theory was seen as wild by all serious observers, but it was sort of assumed that Kim Jong-un would be explicitly designated as a successor ― like it was the case with his father in 1980, during the last Party gathering of the comparable level.

However, this did not happen. The conference was the first time when Kim Jong-un’s name was mentioned in the open media (before that, all talk about him was in classified publications only), and photos of the overweight and seemingly emotionless youngster appeared in the North Korean newspapers. He was also given a rank of the full (five-star) general and made the vice-chairman at the KWP Military Committee. These are serious hints at the special standing for somebody who is merely 27 or 28 years old, to be sure, but this is not his formal anointment which was expected to happen by many people, including the present author.

Another small mystery is the relatively low profile of Jang Song-thaek, who since last years has been seen as the most likely prince regent, a person whose job will be to instruct and tutor (I’d say, to run) Kim Jong-un in case of his father’s premature death. Jang’s wife (who also is the younger Kim’s aunt) also became a full general ― an unusual promotion for a lady who has been dealing with the light industry all her life and hardly can tell a howitzer from a mortar. So, the couple is not out of favor, and Jang kept his positions, but was not featured that prominently at the conference.

This might be unusual, since throughout the last year or so we have seen many signs of hurried preparations for formal succession. However, by some unknown reasons, these preparations might have slowed down recently.

The recent changes are clearly steps towards the eventual emergence of Kim Jong-un as Kim the Third, but so far these measures do not appear quite sufficient to completely ensure a smooth transition. Kim Jong-il’s intentions about his son are now public, but if the Great Leader dies tomorrow, his son will be merely one of a dozen full generals and marshals, not an explicitly designated “successor to the great Juche revolutionary course.”

So, if the elder Kim decides to continue with the power transition within his family (and this seems to be almost certain), more steps might be expected – like, say, a formal Party congress to be convened a couple of years later.

What else unusual could we see at the conference? It might sound strange, but by the North Korean standards it was almost a triumph of openness and transparency. As expected, many vacant positions were filled in, and at first time in many decades North Korean newspapers published short official biographies of the top officials.

In many cases the conference materials made public the names of the people who hold senior bureaucratic positions ― until now in most cases the names of the departmental heads in the Central Committee (roughly equivalent to cabinet ministers) have been largely known ― if known ― through hearsay.

Nonetheless, the main question remains: why did they have this unusual show if the actual results do not appear that significant? We cannot rule out that some last minute changes were made in the conference agenda (after all, the conference opening was delayed by some unknown reasons for some 20 days), so its initial agenda was made less radical.

However, it seems more likely that the major goal of the conference was to confirm the partial move of power back to the party from the military, and also to increase the legitimacy of the current elite as a group. Succession is, of course, an issue as well, even though it seems that by some reasons the preparations for power transition have moved to lower gear ― for the time being, at least.

Read the full story here:

Aftermath of succession show
Korea Times
Andrei Lankov


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