At the first Workers’ Party Congress in 25 years, North Korea aims to develop its economy and its nuclear program. It can’t do both.
The seventh congress of the North Korean Workers’ Party (WPK) held from May 6 to 8 was a carefully choreographed affair designed to show the world that its newly installed Chairman Kim Jong-un is fully in control of the North Korean state. By taking the title of Chairman, Kim has signaled that he is no longer reliant solely on the legacy of his father and grandfather, that he is determined to lead, and that he expects the international community to accommodate his absolute leadership of a nuclear North Korea.
Through his speech at the conference, Kim Jong-un revealed big plans to safeguard North Korea’s security through its nuclear accomplishments and grow its economy. But Kim has not yet shown how he will gain international acquiescence to North Korea’s nuclear development or how he can secure international support for North Korea’s economic growth.
Kim’s plans for economic development are laudable. In his first public speech in 2012, Kim stated that his people should “never have to tighten their belt again.” Since then, North Korea has improved its agricultural production, experimented with limited agricultural reforms, transferred some decision-making responsibility from the state to the firm level, and has stopped opposing private market transactions. The North Korean economy is reported to have grown by one or two percent per year, with the Hyundai Research Institute reporting that North Korea’s annual GDP growth may have reached as high as seven percent. Kim’s reestablishment of a new five-year economic plan at the Party Congress provides needed leadership designed to stoke North Korea’s economic growth.
But Kim’s twin emphasis on nuclear and economic development—his Byungjin policy—stands in the way of a real economic take-off because it starves North Korea of opportunities for external economic cooperation. Kim may exhort his people to improve agriculture, construction, and light industry and to become a scientifically and technologically powerful state in areas including information technology, nano-technology, bioengineering, energy, space, and nuclear technology. But the North Korean economy will fail in these areas unless his country is connected to the outside world. International opposition to North Korea’s nuclear development results in sanctions that generate economic pressures on North Korea and cut the country off from the outside world.
As much as Kim needs connection to the outside world in order to achieve economic growth, he needs political isolation for his system to survive. Kim may regard North Korea’s nuclear deterrent capabilities as an insurance policy against growing challenges to the legitimacy of his single-man rule. Kim’s power depends on his ability to stand atop a system in which he commands absolute loyalty by suppressing both internal and external political competition. The Party Conference affirmed Kim’s monopoly on power and showcased both his demands and the rewards for absolute fealty among the highest-ranking members of North Korean society.
In this respect, Kim’s nuclear program serves two purposes: it helps to ensure North Korea’s isolation by engendering international hostility to the regime while also defending an otherwise vulnerable North Korean state against the possibility of attacks from external enemies. Thus, Kim may regard his formula as his best chance to both preserve his system and maintain the status quo. This is why Kim declared: “We will consistently take hold on the strategic line of simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and the building of nuclear force and boost self-defensive nuclear force both in quality and quantity as long as the imperialists persist in their nuclear threat and arbitrary practices.”
By declaring the permanence of a nuclear North Korea at the Workers’ Party Congress, Kim Jong-un has used the issue to shore up his power internally, but at the expense of North Korea’s international standing. Instead of accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, the international community has consistently condemned its nuclear pursuit and is bent on increasing pressure on Kim through economic sanctions. This makes the nuclear program a primary obstacle to North Korea’s ability to achieve its economic goals.
Kim asserted at the Workers’ Party Congress that North Korea would be a responsible nuclear power, pledging only to use nuclear weapons if it is attacked with nuclear weapons. He also called for global denuclearization, perhaps in an attempt to align North Korea with the position of the five legitimate nuclear weapons states originally recognized in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But North Korea’s unilateral exit from the NPT, its failure to meet past denuclearization pledges, and the extreme concentration of political power in the hands of Kim Jong-un are insurmountable barriers to international acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
In response to Kim’s claim that North Korea would be a “permanent” nuclear weapons state, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesperson reiterated that; “it is only when the North shows sincerity about denuclearization that genuine dialogue is possible.” The United States has rejected North Korean peace overtures, insisting that peace talks are meaningless without talks on denuclearization. Even China’s proposal for talks envisages the United States and North Korea engaging in parallel peace and denuclearization talks. The international community insists that Kim must choose between economic and nuclear development, because the last thing the world thinks Kim Jong-un needs, even at his own party coronation, is two slices of cake.
*The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Council on Foreign Relations.