The much anticipated 5th plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea has ended, and the official report of the plenary session has been released by KCNA.
I had a write up just after the first day session here and the KCNA reports of the second day’s and third day’s proceedings are available here and here. The mainstream media, but also most commentators and analysts, have focused on the defence and nuclear aspects to the almost complete neglect of the economic aspect. Indeed, you can see after reading the official report that economic considerations were primary for Pyongyang, and the military aspects are intimately connected to those economic considerations and, indeed, flow on from them. I will demonstrate this.
In my post on the first day’s proceedings I had first discussed the economy and then the strategic aspects. That is the order in which the Central Committee plenum proceeded, however the media has things in exact reverse. This is because the fixation with ICBM tests and Christmas gifts reflects our obsessions not theirs. This is quite important, and we shall return to it.
Even when looking at the strategic aspects, so deep is the obsession with missile tests, that a big part of the nuclear story coming out of the 5th plenum was missed. I will demonstrate this too.
I have argued here, and on Twitter, for a long time that we won’t see a return to the dynamic of 2017 until North Korea convened a 5th plenary session of the Central Committee. That analysis has proven to be correct. Since Kim Jong Un ascended Mt Paektu on a white horse in October I have also argued that the exercise evokes the Chollima movement, that it evokes acceleration especially and that not just through dint of hard work. The application of science and high technology to restructuring the industrial base of the economy would also prove to be important. That analysis, I submit, was also correct. When I first learned that a 5th plenum would be convened I had argued that it would share strong parallels with Mikhail Gorbachev’s first as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in April 1985. That also I hold to be correct. The usage of “restructuring” above is quite deliberate.
I will now expound a little on these themes. I will not cover everything, and this post, despite its length, leaves out certain angles. We’ll get back to some of those when we can. The report, like the plenum itself, was somewhat lengthy.
Before we proceed, we should note that the Central Committee rubber stamped decisions made elsewhere, that is higher up, and to no small degree functioned as a tool of internal and external propaganda. It was about more than this, though. The plenum acted as a type of transmission belt to ensure that directives from the top are disseminated to the wider society and implemented. In that sense it also functioned as an instrument of social control. There was a reshuffle of party and state cadres, including in the Academy of Science, and these are not unusual in political systems such as this after a key plenary meeting of the central Committee.
It’s the Economy, Stupid!
As can be seen in the official report provided by KCNA most of the plenum was devoted to a, very long, report by Kim Jong Un to the participants. I will not use the expression “delegates” because those of us on the Left have an understanding regarding that word, which does not apply in this case. The plenum had a four point agenda, with the first clearly the most important namely that being reporting “on the orientation of our immediate struggle under the present internal and external situation.” Most of Kim Jong Un’s report to the Central Committee appeared to be devoted to this agenda item. According to KCNA Kim reported;
“Let Us Break Through Head-on All the Barriers to Our Advance!”-this is the fighting slogan the entire Party and all the people should uphold today.
Whereupon Kim immediately stated;
The key front in today’s offensive for making a
breakthrough head-on is the economic front, he said, setting it forth as an
immediate task for the economic field at present to rearrange the economic
foundations of the country and tap all the possible production potentials so as
to fully meet the demand needed for economic development and people’s life.
As can be seen the key aspect here is “the economic front” and notice the emphasis on the need “to rearrange the economic foundations of the country.” It’s possible to see, supporting one of my contentions above, that the military and strategic aspect is subordinate to this and, in fact, flows on from it. According to the KCNA report;
Kim Jong Un stressed the need to provide a political,
diplomatic and military guarantee for our grand offensive for making a
The strategic aspects of the Central Committee plenum are meant to provide sufficient diplomatic and geopolitical space to make good on the restructuring of the productive base of the economy given continued US hostility, according to Kim, which seeks to prevent it. By taking the strategic aspect out of its economic context the media, but also many commentators and analysts, paint a picture that limits understanding and which attributes to Pyongyang a degree of bellicosity greater than is warranted by the facts.
Kim Jong Un reported to the plenum that the North Korean economy and society, much like the Soviet economy which prompted Gorbachev’s reform programmes, faces the problem of stagnation. At one point Kim states that state management and economic work;
is insufficient for pulling and spurring the great
cause of self-reliance and self-development and which fails to bring about a
bold renovation but stays stagnant.
Further we have;
He set forth the tasks to be tackled by the major
industrial sectors of the national economy.
Stressing the need to break through head-on the manifold difficulties and bring about a substantial upsurge in production first in the key industrial sectors, the buttresses of the independent economy, he made an overall analysis of the evil practices and the state of stagnation revealed in the fields of the metal, chemical, electric power, coal-mining, machine-building, building-materials and light industries and rail transport
With regard to rearranging the economic foundations of society Kim certainly emphasises putting production on a more scientific and technological footing, and that involves more than just better application of scientific principles and high technology, but better, more technically oriented, education and more rational management and industrial practices. With regard to the latter Kim made remarks about ideology and the methods of the past worth recording;
Today, when our Republic has gained great strength and
is aspiring after normal development in all spheres, there is no need to still
cling to the transitional and provisional work methods of the past.
Saying that a revolutionary ideology and spirit should lead the times, but the economic work should be conducted firmly in conformity with the practical conditions, he advanced crucial tasks for finding out a clear-cut way of improving planning to meet the actual requirements
If there’s a tension between ideology and reason these remarks suggest Kim leans more to the side of reason. If in China’s cultural revolution a slogan was better red than expert Kim seemingly sits a tad more toward better expert than red. There’s a contradiction here, however, which we shall revisit.
As if to emphasise all these points North Korea has issued a new stamp marking the entry into 2020.
This is what the stamp is said to signify;
The stamp shows the Korean people’s firm will to hasten the building of a powerful socialist nation through continued vigorous Mallima speed movement by dint of self-reliance and science and technology
Mallima speed is faster than the velocity of the Chollima horse that symbolised the Stakhanovite Chollima movement. In April 1985 Gorbachev introduced his first reform programme in response to stagnation known as “acceleration,” that being the acceleration of production through restructuring the productive base of the economy by means of an industrial revolution occasioned by advances in science and high technology. There’s certainly more than a passing resemblance here. Gorbachev put an emphasis on agricultural production in April 1985 and so has Kim now;
Noting that the agricultural front is the major thrust area in the offensive for making a breakthrough head-on, he said that the strong wind of increasing crop yields should be raised more fiercely by actively introducing scientific farming methods in the agricultural sector
The Gorbachev of 1985 was not the Gorbachev of 1988 and beyond. His first foray into reform in response to stagnation was relatively conservative. Indeed, the agenda for the 1985 April plenum, “acceleration” through advanced science and high technology, was developed whilst Konstantin Chernenko was still alive and still General Secretary. Acceleration, both then and now, is a way of meeting the problem of stagnation without challenging the traditional hierarchical and authoritarian character of the political and economic system.
Strategic Nuclear Aspects
To paraphrase Donald Trump they’re a beauty, however we should recognise that they’re couched within a reading of the Singapore process that is not inaccurate, although it does certainly exaggerate the arms control measures North Korea took during that process. For example, Kim states that Pyongyang shut down, as in (by implication) dismantled, the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. That’s an exaggeration. Kim argues in his report that the Singapore process, for Donald Trump, was driven by domestic political considerations, not unlike the (correct) charge made by liberal analysts and commentators who argued the process was more akin to reality TV than serious diplomacy. That doesn’t prevent liberal opinion from blaming Pyongyang for the collapse in the talks, mind you. Kim states that the US throughout the process has continued to pursue a hostile policy directed at regime change, which is based on squeezing North Korea through graduated pressure using nuclear proliferation as a pretext. At, sometimes extended, times after 1990 that has been the US approach at other times not, for instance during and after the Agreed Framework period of the Clinton administration it wasn’t. I’d argue it has been the basic approach of the Trump administration, for “maximum pressure” never ended even during the Singapore process and in some respects was even tightened. Given this, Kim Jong Un reported to the Central Committee that North Korea is no longer bound by the missile and nuclear testing moratorium adopted, or better still rubber stamped, at the 3rd plenum of the 7th Central Committee. The wording of the KCNA report is important here;
Under such circumstances, the DPRK has found no
grounds to be unilaterally bound any longer by the commitment with no other party
to honour, and this has put a damper on its efforts for disarmament and the
non-proliferation of nuclear weapons across the world, he said.
Recall that the 3rd plenum did more than announce a testing moratorium. It also resolved that North Korea would not proliferate nuclear and missile know how, technology and materials. Note the reference above to the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and Pyongyang’s adherence to it. That was missed by many given the obsession with testing.
Kim Jong Un also confirmed what was stated after the second December static hot test of a liquid propellant engine at Sohae, namely that North Korea has a new strategic nuclear weapon but, additionally, Kim announced it will be tested soon. This is stated explicitly with no ifs and buts for according to the official report Kim;
confirmed that the world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future.
The media has reported that Kim’s testing of that new weapon is conditional upon subsequent US actions, leaving the door open to diplomacy despite the end of Kim’s new year deadline for talks to bear fruit. Here is the relevant passage;
He said that we will reliably maintain the constant readiness for action of the powerful nuclear deterrent capable of containing the US nuclear threat and guaranteeing our long-term security, and that the scope and depth of the buildup of the deterrent will properly be coordinated depending on the future approach of the US to the DPRK.
Now we further have;
the DPRK will steadily develop indispensable and prerequisite strategic weapons for national security until the US rolls back its hostile policy and a lasting and durable peace mechanism is in place.
It’s quite possible that the new strategic weapon is a new or modified liquid propellant ICBM. But that’s not the be all and end all of the strategic nuclear programme. The first, and its flight testing, is already in the bag, but the scope and depth of the second i.e. new strategic weapons after whatever awaits us around the corner, will depend on subsequent US actions. That’s one way of interpreting the report, and I lean toward this interpretation.
Denuclearisation Is Not Dismantlement
One of the things missed, because of the attention given to testing, was what seems to me a pretty clear statement from Kim that denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, for Pyongyang, has little to do with dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programme, that is the complete, verified, irreversible dismantlement of CVID fame sanctions relief or no sanctions relief. Here are the relevant points made by Kim to which I refer the reader.
First, Kim uses the expression “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” and that in the context of the requirement for the US to reverse its hostile policy;
that if the US persists in its policy hostile towards the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula
Earlier on, when speaking of North Korea’s defence science and industrial base and its achievements Kim also states;
Such a leap forward in developing the state-of-the-art national defence science would make our great military and technical strength irreversible
Which is not consistent with dismantlement. Here Kim says, fairly clearly it seems to me, denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, in so far as North Korea understands it, is not comprehensive and irreversible dismantlement.
The question we have to answer is; do we want to accept that formulation?
Before concluding with that question I’d like to just make a few remarks about the contradiction I wrote of earlier. We saw that Kim has called for a more rational, technocratic, approach to the economy, state and party management, education, and public health. At the end of his report to the Central Committee we see references to what Xi Jinping might call red culture.
He tabled the issues of conducting an intensive party-wide, nationwide and society-wide struggle against anti-socialist and non-socialist deeds and strengthening the work of the working people’s organizations and tightening the moral discipline throughout society.
On the one hand Kim calls for new work methods, for less ideology, greater rationality and a commitment to pragmatism but here he stresses an ideological campaign against anti socialist and non socialist deeds. This seems like a contradiction, and how this plays out will be an important part of the North Korean story. A new class of technocratic cadres less given to ideology and more given to reason could turn North Korea into a different direction, not unlike what happened in China. Even here there are parallels to the Gorbachev of 1985. At the time Gorbachev was waging an, unpopular, campaign against alcoholism a type of “tightening the moral discipline throughout society” if you will.
Well, in 1941…
Kim stated that subsequent US actions will determine the scope and depth of North Korea’s strategic programmes. So, the question we in the West are confronted with is; should we accept a deal that constrains the depth and scope of that programme whilst putting into place mutual measures aimed toward achieving strategic stability?
This is where sanctions loom large. Kim stated that the seven decades long confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington has boiled down to self reliance versus sanctions. When you read the entire report you get the impression that North Korea’s current internal and external situation is a difficult one, but Kim demands that North Korea should not be passive and just let things slide. North Korea must be proactive, it must shape its future and that means not allowing itself to succumb to US pressure and the tendencies toward internal stagnation. Inertia, domestically and externally, is verboten. In a nutshell Kim Jong Un is telling us he is not Saddam Hussein. He will not passively accept a situation where North Korean capabilities degrade over time because of sanctions and military pressure so becoming easy pickings for Washington at some later date. That’s implicit in his summing up of the plenum at the end of the report;
He clarified that the basic idea, the basic spirit of
the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK is to conduct
the offensive for frontal breakthrough, not to wait for the situation to turn
More toward the beginning we have;
Such a leap forward in developing the state-of-the-art
national defence science would make our great military and technical strength
irreversible, greatly promote the increase of our national strength, improve
our power of putting the political situation around us under control and give
the enemies the blow of serious uneasiness and horror.
Kim Jong Un has put us on notice. He will not accept North Korea’s indefinite, and graduated, strangulation through economic and military means. North Korea will fight back, and in the fighting back there exists the potential for things to get out of control i.e. up to and including nuclear war. In 2017 a highly knowledgeable and perceptive Japanese economist, Mitsuhiro Mimura, who specialises on the North Korean economy was asked, in an interview with 38North conducted by Jeff Baron, what would happen should North Korea be sanctioned indefinitely and should those sanctions (and military actions) escalate to “maximum pressure 2.0.” as some are now demanding.
This is the exchange;
JB: Speaking of sanctions, what if the international sanctions aimed at forcing the regime to give up nuclear weapons and missiles really squeezed North Korea, cutting off fuel and trade, depriving it of the minimum it needed to survive?
MM: Well, in 1941…
By 1941 Mimura meant Pearl Harbour.
My own view is that the rational approach at this juncture would be to accept a situation short of disarmament and to fashion a condition of strategic stability and détente, which would enable North and South Korea to pursue peace and rapprochement and that with our support. What would happen in North Korea under such circumstances is very hard to fathom, but perhaps Kim Jong Un understands that North Korea’s situation is irrational. Perhaps he understands that “we cannot go on living like this,” to paraphrase Gorbachev, but he needs a soft landing as it were. Like Saddam Hussein needed a diplomatic and political soft landing to reverse course after his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. I doubt that Washington will provide him one. For Washington nothing matters more than its power and prestige as global hegemon, something that outranks even survival as Washington has demonstrated many times before. What would happen if there were to be an excess of democracy in the United States in 2020?
Well, in 1989…