An Opportunity Missed

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North Korea’s first Party Congress in three decades, a grand spectacle at which Kim Jong-un’s greatest achievement seems to have been giving himself the newly-created title of the chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), cannot have given the long-suffering citizens of North Korea much hope for a better tomorrow. Some observers had hoped that Kim, now that he seems confident that he has proven to the world that North Korea is a “responsible nuclear weapons state,” might take a page from Deng Xiaoping’s playbook at the 12th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 1982 and place a strong emphasis on gradual but substantial economic reforms. Instead, Kim unveiled a vague Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) for centrally-managed economic development that only highlighted the severe shortcoming of the current economic system, such as the chronic shortage of the electrical power grid.

To assess the inadequacies of this Party Congress, it is instructive to look back at what the state-of-play was at the last WPK Party Congress in 1980, presided over by Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung.  While hard to believe, in 1980 North Korea was a respected member of the non-aligned movement.  In addition to senior leaders from China and the Soviet Union, there were 175 delegates from 116 countries in attendance, including Prime Minister Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.  Then-Chinese Premier Hua Guofeng sent a long letter congratulating Kim Il-Sung on his accomplishments.  Li Xiannian, the senior Chinese delegate to the 1980 Congress, publicly spoke in support of Kim Il-Sung’s demand for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of American troops from Korea.  This time around, according to a source of the South Korea news service Yonhap, Pyongyang–perhaps to avoid embarrassment–did not even issue invitations to foreign government or fraternal Communist Parties. The mandatory greeting from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party to its fraternal brothers in North Korea did not even mention Kim Jong Un until the final sentence of the communique, distancing themselves from him.

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