North Korea just wrapped up its biggest political event in decades – a lavish, four-day congress of its ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. It was intended to both strengthen the leadership of Kim Jong-un, who presided over it all and came out with the newly created title of party chairman, and show off the face of the country that North Korea wants the world to see: that of a stable, unified nuclear power determined to stay its own path, come what may.
Choreographed down to the finest detail, the congress was a classic North Korean show of political theatre – but with some interesting and important subplots all converging on the star, Kim Jong Un himself.
Here, The Associated Press’ North Korea bureau chief, Eric Talmadge, his counterpart in South Korea, Foster Klug, and Seoul-based reporter Kim Tong-hyung offer five main takeaways from the event, which wrapped up on Monday and was followed on Tuesday by the customary, and equally elaborate, old time Soviet-style mass rally in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square.
It really doesn't take kindly to criticism
North Korea allowed more than 100 foreign journalists into the country to make sure it got a lot of international attention. But it ended up getting more attention by kicking three foreign journalists out.
North Korean officials led foreign media on tours of showpiece factories, historical landmarks, and hospitals around the capital – all sorts of things that had nothing to do with the congress.
Most of the reporters saw the congress venue just once, from outside and across the street. A small group of journalists, including The Associated Press, were invited in on the last day and ushered back out after about 10 minutes.
The BBC crew that was kicked out on Monday had come for an earlier event but was detained while the congress was underway for allegedly “insulting the dignity of the nation”. What they reported that got the North Koreans’ angry is not entirely clear, but it’s not a big surprise. It’s very easy to cross a line in the North, which takes any criticism of its leader as a potential criminal offense.
“It’s kind of like the way they do economic reform. They really want it. They open up a little bit. Then they are afraid of what could go wrong, and then they close it up again. It’s the way they deal with the world in general,” said Victor Cha, an expert on North Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who served as a top White House official on Asia policy under George W Bush.
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It knows how to put on a show, old school
First and foremost, the congress was one big visual. Run and re-run day and night on the state media, it was perfect for sound bites and impressive backdrops carefully designed to project a message of power, authority, and “single-minded unity” – a slogan that actually hung beside the stage.
The venue was an opulent ceremonial hall filled with thousands of delegates who created a sea of seemingly anonymous party cadres ready to cheer with wild enthusiasm at every opportunity. Civilian delegates all wore almost identical suits. Military officers, who filled about a third of the auditorium, wore full dress uniforms, many with chests full of medals.
Between loud and frequent standing ovations, they sat perfectly still and quiet.
Flanked by huge red and gold banners and standing under two giant portraits of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and father – Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il – Kim Jong-un spoke at a podium in front of a massive floral arrangement that formed the ruling party logo of hammer, sickle and writing brush. His main speech lasted more than three hours.
On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands were mobilised to put on a carefully choreographed mass rally and parade, with a smiling Kim Jong-un looking down upon the masses from his elevated “tribune of honour.”
No huge shake-up
Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said there was less top-level personnel reshuffling at the congress than expected, which he said speaks to the stability of Kim Jong-un’s power base.
Cheong said Choe Ryong-hae regaining a seat on the powerful Presidium of the party’s Central Committee was the most significant promotion at the congress. Once considered Kim Jong-un’s No. 2, Choe is believed to have been briefly banished to a rural collective farm last year for re-education. Choe’s re-instatement to the presidium makes him virtually the party’s second-most important official, with other Presidium members Kim Yong-nam and Pak Pong-ju representing state organisations and Hwang Pyong-so the military, Cheong said.
There is also a possibility that Kim could use Choe as his point man for improving relations with China, the country’s most important strategic and economic partner, Cheong said. Kim picked Choe to represent North Korea last year at Chinese celebrations commemorating the end of the second world war.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong, who was elected among the vice chairmen of the Central Committee’s Executive Policy Bureau and also among the committee’s department directors, was another official whose status notably rose, Cheong said.
Yawn from the South
South Korean newspapers covered the congress’ main points and Kim Jong-un’s comments, but the subject didn’t seem to dominate public interest.
On Tuesday afternoon, the news about Kim Jong-un being named party chairman was fifth on the Top 10 search word list of Naver, South Korea’s most popular website. Naver users were more interested in a new soap opera starring K-pop stars and an actor switching entertainment agencies, among other things.
Several news outlets commented on Kim Jong-un’s Western-style suit and tie, and horned-rimmed glasses that resembled the ones worn by the late Kim Il-sung. The conservative Chosun Ilbo said Kim was trying to mimic the style of his grandfather, who is fondly remembered by North Koreans.
Seoul saw nothing new
South Korea’s government dismissed the apparently softer tone of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who said his country would be a responsible nuclear power.
A senior government official responsible for North Korea issues told reporters Tuesday that there was nothing new in Kim’s speech. He said the declaration that the North would be a responsible nuclear power was made as far back as 2006.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office policy, said Kim’s statement that the North won’t use nukes unless others do so first also was stated before, in a 2013 law. Despite that, he said, the North has threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes against its enemies, and previously released a statement saying it had a right to such strikes.