APRIL, Part 1 The North: It's one big
party By Aidan Foster-Carter
The first quarter of 2012 is almost over.
Where did it go, so fast? And for those parts of
the world where the calendar is marked by four
distinct seasons - which doesn't apply to much of
Asia, but very much includes the Korean peninsula
- spring has begun to arrive. Welcome warmth and
relief, after the rigors of chilly winter: an
especially harsh one in North Korea.
can bring fresh breezes, and - switching now to
metaphor - for both Koreas this looks to be the
case this time in the realm of politics. It may be
largely coincidence, but both north and south of
the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) this coming month is
set to bring very important political events,
developments, and quite probably changes. Asia
Times Online readers may well be aware of some
of these already, but it
might be helpful to consider them all together.
Let's start in Pyongyang. North Korea
often likes to spring surprises, but not always.
We've known for a long time, because they told us
so, that mid-April was going to be an important
moment. April 15 will mark the centenary of the
birth of Kim Il-sung, the Democratic People's
Republic of Korea's (DPRK's) founding "Great
Leader". Kim died in 1994, yet officially he still
remains the "Eternal President".
years ago, the North set this year as their
deadline for becoming a "Great and Prosperous
Nation" (Kangsong Taeguk in Korean). For a
country where many go hungry and most live at a
very basic level, and whose economy is probably
still smaller now than it was in 1990, that target
always sounded a tad ambitious - or even a hostage
to fortune. Surely it must risk provoking a
reaction like the child to the emperor's supposed
new clothes, in the old fable.
has a few hastily-built new apartment blocks, and
part of the Ryugyong Hotel's vast pyramid will
finally open, only 20 years late. But that's it.
Not much to brag about, is it?
surprise, then, if they've decided to play down
prosperous and go for great. The latter is vaguer,
and can include military might as well. Which of
course is what they've been trying to build up all
these years at the expense of the economy. The
Kims chose guns over butter.
I had long
expected that North Korea would mark its founder's
centenary by letting off a big firework of some
kind. Then, out of the blue, came the Leap Day
deal with the US, whose terms included no nuclear
or missile tests. That was a relief. No loud bangs
after all, then.
Wrong again. For whatever
reason - a cunning ploy? or warring factions in
Pyongyang? - barely a fortnight later on March 16
North Korea announced plans to launch a space
satellite between April 12 and 16. The satellite
issue has already been much rehearsed, in these
pages and elsewhere. Despite protests from
everyone, even China, there is no doubt they'll go
ahead with it. North Korea doesn't do backing
down, especially not in a sacred season such as
However, I'm more interested in two
other April events. February saw the late Kim
Jong-il's birthday (February 16) celebrated as
usual - the only difference being that the "Dear
Leader" was no longer around to enjoy the
synchronized swimming, flower shows and all the
rest. Then two days later it was announced that a
conference of the nominally ruling Workers' Party
of Korea (WPK) will be held in mid-April. (No more
precise date was, or has yet been, given.)
This is a big deal, since for decades such
meetings didn't happen. Note that this is not a
full party congress. By the WPK's rules those are
supposed to be held every five years, but in
practice they seem to have given up on them. The
last one was the sixth in 1980, when Kim Jong-il -
hitherto merely a rumor - was formally revealed as
his father's anointed successor.
might have expected a seventh WPK congress to be
called to unveil Kim Jong-eun - but not so.
Instead, for whatever reason in September 2010
they chose a subtly different and even rarer
format: a delegates' conference, not a full
congress. There had only ever been two of those
before, way back in 1958 and 1966. Now they're
holding another, barely 18 months after the last
one. By North Korea's glacial standards this
almost qualifies as haste.
was Kim Jong-eun's coming-out party: the first
time he'd ever been seen, or even named. So what
does this new conference portend? I'd suggest
three things to watch out for.
further enthronements for Kim the third. The three
pillars of the DPRK system are the party, army and
state - not necessarily in that order. Kim Jong-il
held the topmost posts in all three spheres. When
he died, the powers that be - but who be they? -
moved swiftly to declare Kim Jong-eun commander in
chief of the Korean People's Army (KPA). First
One down, two to go. Most
likely, Kim will now formally assume leadership of
the WPK as its general secretary. He may also take
on a third key post, as chairman of the National
Defense Commission (NDC): the highest executive
organ of state, outranking the merely civilian
cabinet. Or that may come a few days sooner, at
another meeting: read on.
Second, we might
hear some new policy lines announced. But don't
bet on it. Kim Jong-eun's legitimacy is premised
on continuity with daddy and grandpappy, so that
doesn't leave much wiggle room. This is a big
weakness of North Korea's system. It desperately
needs to adapt, yet any change of course would
mean tacitly admitting that the Great Leader
wasn't so great.
Third, the WPK conference
may see personnel changes, on two grounds. It must
be awkward that the top party leadership are all
at least twice as old - three times, some of them
- as Kim Jong-eun. Even his dad was younger than
most of them. These gerontocrats are dying off
fast. Where is the rising generation that will
follow them? Waiting in the wings, impatiently.
All systems need new blood, but like Aztec
gods, the Kims also demand blood, period. There
are bound to be purges now, just as there were
when Kim Jong-il took over. Mid-April may thus
reveal a new party line-up: Spot the missing
faces, and wonder what has befallen them.
Here's a grisly tale, though unconfirmed.
On March 21 the Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo, citing
South Korean government sources, wrote that an
(unnamed) senior figure at the Defense Ministry
went before a firing squad for being drunk during
the mourning period. Next day, they revised the
story. Kim Jong-eun ordered that there be "no
trace of him [left] behind, down to his hair". So
rather than a bullet, this poor chap was executed
by mortar round.
That's North Korea. You
do your level best: Stay endlessly loyal, jump
through every hoop. You've a chest festooned with
medals to prove it. Then one day the wind changes,
your luck runs out, and none of your decades of
loyalty does you a blind bit of good. Bang. Splat.
But even before the WPK meeting, we'll get
a peek at which skittles are still standing and
which have been knocked out of sight. That's an
unkind but apt image for the wooden-faced platform
party at the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA),
North Korea's pretend parliament.
normally meets - for a single day, which gives the
game away: no debate, it's just a rubber stamp -
in the second week in April. So when the party
meeting was announced, I wondered if they might
postpone the SPA this year in case mid-April got
But no. They took their time,
but on March 24 it was announced that the fifth
session of the 12th SPA will be held on April 13.
No doubt we'll get the usual budget report.
Wouldn't it be nice if for once it had actual
numbers? Then we'd know Kim Jong-eun means
business. Any personnel changes to the cabinet or
NDC may also be announced - or visible - here.
So mid-April will indeed be busy in
Pyongyang. That makes logistical sense. Many if
not most SPA members will also be WPK delegates,
so holding both meetings pretty much back to back
will save a bundle on train fares and
As to the order of
ceremonies, I'm thinking: 1. Rocket, 2. SPA, 3.
WPK. That way the two meetings can hail the
satellite and denounce its critics. But what if
the launch fails? Maybe they'd just claim it
succeeded anyway, as before. Still, they're taking
a bit of a gamble here.
The WPK meeting
ranks highest. In logic it should and in theory it
could come first: "mid-April" could be any time
from April 10. Then again, remember the 2010 party
conference was originally called for early
September. We waited on tenterhooks as the month
dragged on with no sign of it, until finally they
held it on September 28. The delay went
unexplained. But even in Pyongyang, getting their
act together can take longer than expected.
So we have a lot to look forward to. South
Korea will be busy too: electing its own new
non-pretend parliament just two days before the
SPA meets. That's the subject of my next article.
NEXT: The South: Busy at the
Aidan Foster-Carter is
honorary senior research fellow in sociology and
modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance
consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean
affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he
has followed North Korean affairs for over 40
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