North Korea blows off the cobwebs
By Andrei Lankov
SEOUL - In the next few days, a large gathering of North Korean officials is
expected to open in Pyongyang. This is an unusual event, to be sure, so it
attracts much attention in the world media.
However, even a cursory glance at different publications demonstrates that many
journalists and commentators who write on the issue do not quite realize what
type of political gathering to expect. The function is variously described as a
"meeting", "convention", or even as a "party congress". The last description is
wrong (the coming event is explicitly not a party congress) while the
two others are far too nebulous. After all, the final match of the football
World Cup could be described as a "meeting of 22
well-trained individuals for the purposes of physical exercise". Factually
true, but it does not tell us much about the nature of the event.
The misunderstanding can be easily explained by the changing spirit of the
times. In the late 1940s, North Korea borrowed from the Soviet Union the basic
structure of a communist state, and has kept it ever since.
Such states were once common, and in the 1970s the Western media would not be
so clueless about the nature of such an event. However, nowadays, a Leninist
state is a seriously endangered, almost extinct, species, so the younger
generation of journalists is clearly at loss (nowadays, they probably are
better informed about the specifics of various Muslim sects). Therefore, some
background information is needed - if you like, a short memo on how North
Korean state operates.
So, what is going to happen in Pyongyang soon? In the Korean Workers' Party
(KWP) statute the scheduled event is defined clearly: this is a "party
conference", a gathering of the (supposedly) elected representatives of KWP
members where specific issues of current policy are discussed.
The KWP, like all Leninist parties, is a rigidly centralized structure,
somewhat akin to a military organization. However, for some reason those
parties kept a number of institutions that were designed to appear democratic.
Those were largely vestiges of a long-gone era, a reminder of times when in the
early 1900s communist parties - or rather their predecessors - indeed had a
vibrant internal democracy. Since then, the ostensibly democratic features have
been kept partially out of respect for established tradition, but largely for
One of those pseudo-democratic fictions is the system of party elections. The
party-state is run by a hierarchy of committees, with the central committee and
its powerful bureaucracy being the pinnacle of the entire structure, a central
government in everything but name.
The party committees at all levels are essentially self-appointed. Communist
functionaries become members of the central committee pretty much in the same
way as the Catholic clergy become cardinals - they are appointed by the current
leaders, but not without consulting and lobbying at the lower levels. At any
rate, no elections are involved. Lower-level committees are manned in a similar
However, on paper the committees - including the central committee - are
elected. In the Cold War era most communist parties once every few years staged
a large and pompous convention that was known as a "party congress". This was
where the new central committee was "elected".
Actually, the elections were a fiction, pure and simple. The congress
obediently voted for a candidates' list that had been drafted weeks or months
beforehand by the central committee bureaucracy and approved by the leadership.
The tradition required that support for the list during a public voting ritual
should be unanimous, and this indeed was the case.
The party representatives who attended the congress - and they could number in
thousands - were themselves selected through a similar procedure: appointed by
the local party apparatchiks, they were then formally "elected" by the relevant
Some of the representatives were prominent bureaucrats and officials, but a
majority came from the party rank-and-file. Exemplary milkmaids and steel
workers were dispatched to the congress to demonstrate the broad support
communist rule allegedly enjoyed among the ''masses''. Nobody expected from
them any meaningful discussion of political issues, and in most cases any
attempt at such discussion would be promptly suppressed.
A party congress had other important functions. It was the place where the
party supreme leader, usually known as its "general secretary", delivered a
speech in which he described the achievements of the party as well as the
universal love and admiration it enjoyed among the people.
He also used the opportunity to criticize scheming enemies and remind about the
need to remain vigilant. These speeches could be very lengthy. For example, in
1956, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean state and father of present
dictator Kim Jong-il, spent six hours reading a voluminous text of such speech,
and during party congresses in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev,
the top Soviet leader, usually spent three of four hours reading similar texts
in his less then audible voice. Kremlinologists, however, unlike the unlucky
audience, had a field day with these speeches since among the boring nonsense
there were some important hints that could indicate the direction a particular
state was going to take.
Indeed, the party congresses (and conferences, of which more later) were
largely convened to convey important messages about policies while also staging
an only too transparent show of ''party democracy''. It is important to
remember that no discussion took place at a congress of a ruling Leninist
The decisions were drafted well before a conference/congress began, were always
voted through unanimously and without addition or amendment. The speeches of
the participants were also usually checked and censored beforehand, and in the
entire history of the communist bloc there were very few cases when a
representative making critical comments about the system or leaders. Usually,
the representatives extolled party wisdom, the greatness of its leaders and
struggled to describe how great and selfless their own love of the system was.
The party statute stipulated that a congress should be convened at regular
intervals, usually once every five years. After the 1950s, most communist
countries complied with this demand.
Party statutes also stipulated that a minor version of a congress could be
convened if the party leadership considered it fit. The minor version was known
as a party conference (and this is what is going to meet in Pyongyang).
Officially, a party conference met to discuss peculiar questions of current
policy, but in real life it was, essentially, a minor version of the party
congress. Generally speaking, the conferences were much less common then
In the Kim Il-sung era, North Korea, however, was remarkable in its relative
disregard for legal niceties. The KWP's statute has all the necessary articles,
copy-pasted from Soviet regulations, but these have been ignored.
Throughout its 65 years history, the KWP has had six congresses, but none of
them ever met within the officially prescribed interval. The last KWP congress
took place in 1980, and was the venue at which Kim Jong-il was officially and
publicly proclaimed the successor to his father. The next congress was supposed
to meet five years later. It has never met (and the coming convention will be
not be a congress, but a humbler conference).
The KWP's party conferences took place twice, in 1958 and 1966. Both times they
were convened to formalize the results of severe purges in the top leadership
and ''elect'' new leaders, free from "unmasked anti-party enemies". After a
30-year hiatus, most observers came to the conclusion that North Korean leaders
had decided to get rid off the pseudo-democratic institution altogether.
The "military-first" policy and the obvious attempts to play down the KWP's
role also strengthened such understanding. It was known that even central
committee meetings were discontinued, so after his fatherís death in 1994, Kim
Jong-il has run the country with a remarkable disregard to institutional
However, in recent few years it seems the trend has been reversed: the KWP or,
rather, its bureaucracy or people who have made a career within the party, are
beginning to reassert themselves, slightly pushing the military aside.
Decisions to convene a conference - ostensibly to publicly anoint the next
hereditary dictator - seem to be another sign of these quiet changes.
But why did the North Korean leaders choose to convene a conference that is
clearly a lower-level, less formal and less prestigious gathering, and not a
full-scale party congress? The reasons might be economic. In North Korea it has
become an established tradition that a party congress should be accompanied by
lavish celebrations and expensive gifts to both the elite and the general
In 1980, when the KWP congress was last convened, humble housewives were given
fresh fruit, mid-level officials were handed wristwatches while their superiors
could even get a Japanese-made refrigerator. This tradition was burdensome, and
in the mid-1980s Kim Il-sung complained to Soviet diplomats that he would like
to have another congress but could not afford it due to the poor economic
conditions of the country. The conference, on the other hand, is not expected
to be celebrated on such a lavish scale.
These economic considerations seem to be the reason why in Pyongyang we are
going to see the third KWP conference, not the seventh KWP congress.
Nonetheless, in practical terms, the difference between those two events are
Whatever the name, what should we expect? No policy debate will take place, for
sure. The participants, overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, will be men in
their 40s, 50s and 60s, clad in badly tailored suits, who will unanimously vote
for all resolutions, showing outbursts of enthusiasm when instructed to do so.
There will be some important statements, most likely related to the succession
- otherwise, it would not make sense to convene the conference. Those
statements will move the representatives to tears - if earlier North Korean
propaganda is a clue, we are likely to see an entire hall of weeping
A lengthy speech about the current situation will be delivered. In all
probability it will not be done by Kim Jong-il, who seldom speaks in public,
but by some other dignitary (the name might be important, since the person is
likely to play a major role in the years ahead). The speech will be worth
careful reading since it will have some important hints on the country's
course. Equally important for political analysts will be the lengthy lists of
newly appointed officials.
At any rate, it will be a bit of a show. The world has not seen anything like
this for years - China and Vietnam still hold similar gatherings, but their
functions have lost much of their earlier flavor. So, the conference itself is
a slightly bizarre reminder of a bygone era, and it is not impossible that it
will become one of the last gatherings of this type to take place in front of
an international audience.
Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul,
and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacifica and Asian
Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea.
He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.