Provocations, Defections Multiply as North Korean Party Congress Approaches

First party congress since 1981 could bring significant changes to country

Kim Jong Un
Kim Jong Un / AP
April 13, 2016

Kiev, UkraineBallistic missile and short-range rocket launches, test detonations of low-yield nuclear devices, and regular outbursts of violent anti-U.S. rhetoric have become almost regular occurrences in North Korea. Specialists on North Korea who spoke with the Washington Free Beacon said that the impetus for these provocations is the upcoming Seventh Party Congress of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, which will take place in May.

For North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the congress will be a watershed moment. It is anticipated that personnel changes and shifts in both domestic and foreign policy will be announced at the congress. What happens after the congress, the specialists said, could dictate whether or not the Kim family’s rule of the country—and the country itself—continues.

The nuclear tests and missile firings are examples of North Korea's leaders "thumbing their nose at the West and attempting to show that sanctions have no impact on their efforts to develop new and better weapons," said one North Korea watcher in Beijing. "But the fact remains that the primary audience for these demonstrations is domestic. A lot of what we are seeing is Kim asserting that he is the man fully in charge leading up to the party congress."

Rulers have used past party congresses to announce major departures in strategy and ideology. The most well-known example was the Soviet Union’s 20th Party Congress in 1956, where Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced the murderous rule of his predecessor, Josef Stalin.

North Korea held its first congress in 1946, with successive meetings held in 1948, 1956, 1961, and 1970. The sixth and most recent party congress was more than three decades ago in 1980, when the party was led by Kim Il Sung, the country's founder and the grandfather of the current ruler. The younger Kim had not been born at the time.

It is expected that the Seventh Party Congress will produce significant changes, with winners and losers as part of the behind-the-scenes power struggles that have occurred since Kim took over from his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011.

These power struggles may explain the recent uptick in defections by North Korean officials, according to North Korea watchers in Beijing. Officials who fear being removed from their current positions or worse are escaping the country in advance of the congress. Their fears are well-founded. Fifteen senior North Korean officials were executed on Kim’s orders in the first four months of 2015 alone, according to South Korean intelligence reports—a rate of almost one execution per week.

Last week, South Korea announced that a "senior colonel" in North Korea's Reconnaissance General Bureau had defected to South Korea last year. The defection of another North Korean diplomat who was posted to an African nation was announced at the same time.

The bureau was created in 2009 by merging several intelligence agencies in an effort to coordinate espionage operations against South Korea. According to a North Korea expert at the Korean Institute for National Reunification in Seoul, the senior defector from this agency was "the highest military ranking so far to have defected to South Korea since the Korean War" armistice was signed in 1953.

The bureau is led by Gen. Kim Yong Chol, who has been accused of directing a torpedo attack against a South Korean navy ship in 2010 that killed 46 sailors. The FBI has accused the bureau of carrying out a high-profile cyberattack against Sony Pictures in 2014.

North Korea observers point to defections as signs that Kim could plan to use the party congress as an opportunity to "clean house" in the government’s upper ranks.

The congress could also result in dramatic changes in how North Korea manages its economy and deals with foreign powers.

According to observers, the North Korean economy cannot be sustained much longer without either a major course correction or a significant increase in food, fuel and other types of aid from China, a neighbor and ally. However, tensions with China have increased over North Korea's destabilizing military provocations, making an increase in aid unlikely. Economic reform is a likelier option.

"One of the fallouts from the party congress may very well be a push for significant economic reform," the North Korea expert in Beijing said. "In parallel, it will be clear to the leadership that this can only be accomplished by a return to negotiations that could lead to at least a partial lifting of sanctions. If economic initiatives are put forth next month, look for [North Korea] to find a way to return to talks with the U.S. and others early next year."

Published under: North Korea