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Foreign Policy

Sounding Out the DPRK

Jan 28, 2021
  • Wang Fudong

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations

At the start of the New Year in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Workers’ Party of Korea held its Eighth National Congress, which lasted eight days. As the most important political event in the country in recent years, the meeting laid out the strategic goals, vision and domestic and foreign policies of the DPRK and was thus quite informative for research into the situation and trends on the Korean Peninsula.

Overall, the Eighth Congress differed little in its political, economic, military and diplomatic policies from the Fifth Plenum of the Seventh WPK Central Committee held at the end of 2019.

First, the Congress declared that economic construction remains the most important task to be concentrated on for quite some time to come and affirmed that the strategic line centering on economic construction at the Third Plenum of the Seventh Central Committee will remain the grand strategy for the long term.

Among the representatives to the congress, people from the economic sector increased from 423 to 801 and military personnel decreased from 719 to 408, indicating the importance the DPRK attaches to the economy.

With regard to implementation methods and economic management, Eighth Congress continued the strategy of “head-on breakthrough based on self-reliance” proposed at the Fifth Plenum of the Seventh Central Committee.

The Congress announced that the DPRK continues to have a planned economy and stressed the need to strengthen unified government management of the economy and limit the autonomy of individuals and enterprises, a marked setback from the market-oriented economic reform measures adopted after the Seventh Congress. This shows that the DPRK, impacted by sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, has chosen to strengthen government control and slow down the market-oriented process.

Second, the DPRK has placed extra emphasis on upgrading its existing nuclear and missile capabilities and will not easily conduct nuclear or long-range missile tests. Therefore, there is little chance of returning to the high tensions on the peninsula before 2018.

Instead of denuclearization, the Eighth Congress proposed to develop tactical nuclear weapons, super-large nuclear warheads, long-range missiles, hypersonic glider warheads, submarine-launched missiles, nuclear submarines and military reconnaissance satellites.

Most of these, however, are beyond the DPRK’s existing technological and material capabilities. They are bluffs and bargaining chips to increase pressure on the U.S. to make concessions. The DPRK has been cautious in its statements on the most sensitive issue of nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Third, the DPRK regards the all-around expansion of foreign relations as the overall direction of its diplomacy, which serves economic construction. The Eighth Congress was rather friendly to China, Russia and other socialist countries.

Fourth, the DPRK attaches importance to the construction of the WPK and organs of political power to have a greater capacity against external pressure in the long term. Following the example of China and other socialist countries, the DPRK has actively promoted the institutionalization of operations of the WPK and the government with regular party congresses, reestablishing the offices of the General Secretary and the Central Secretariat, establishment of the party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces and strengthened disciplinary inspection and supervision within the party. This helps to enhance the stability and endurance of the regime so as to avoid being dragged down by U.S. sanctions.

The overall strategy of the Eighth WPK Congress, in the final analysis, is to overcome the pressure of sanctions through self-reliance, to constantly improve nuclear capabilities and to force the U.S. to concede to the DPRK and improve relations at an early date, so as to finally find a way out for economic development.

But such a strategy faces severe challenges. First, whether self-reliance and a planned economy can support the DPRK economy through the current downturn is a question. The country has tried self-reliance and self-sufficiency for many years, with poor results because of its small size and lack of strategic supplies such as coke, oil and food.

The inefficiency of a planned economy does nothing to improve the economic situation. Kim Jong-un admitted in public that the last five-year strategic goals had not been achieved in any specific area, which serves as evidence of the limited effectiveness of the self-reliance policy.

Second, the DPRK’s growing nuclear capability will bring itself more international sanctions and hamper the effectiveness of its diplomatic offensive. It is difficult for countries to make fundamental adjustments in their policies towards DPRK while its own diplomacy will not provide sufficient impetus for economic development.

Of course, the DPRK understands its situation. The main purpose of the Eighth WPK Congress is to take the initiative before the new U.S. administration announces its DPRK policy. The signals have been mixed, with both soft and hard moves to sound out the outside world.

In fact, the DPRK has made room for its own policy maneuvers. With regard to the U.S., it stresses not only “countering strength with strength” but also “returning goodwill with goodwill” — conditioning the resumption of negotiations on the U.S. abandoning hostility.

It stressed to the Republic of Korea the hope of a return to the spring of 2018 as soon as possible. The DPRK has set fairly vague, rather than clear-cut, conditions for dialogue with the U.S. and ROK, therefore allowing flexibility. In fact, the ROK’s Unification Ministry interpreted the signals as a desire by the DPRK to improve relations with the South as soon as possible and as a way to open up diplomacy with the U.S.

Arguably, each party concerned with the DPRK nuclear issue has its own difficulties, as well as its own policy advantages and weaknesses. As none has an overwhelming advantage, the final outcome may hardly be a complete victory for any one party.

Whether the denuclearization process will be smooth or not depends not only upon the willingness (or lack of it) of the DPRK to abandon nuclear weapons but also on the country’s objective national strength and its multilateral interactions with relevant countries.

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