North Korea Convenes the 5th Plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK and the Return of Tension to the Korean Peninsula

North Korea this weekend has conducted another test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground. A separate post is devoted to that topic. I’ve been wanting to post about the up coming plenary session of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea and the politics of denuclearisation occasioned by its announcement, however the testing at Sohae has well and truly diverted my attention.

5th Plenary Session of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK

On December 4 KCNA announced that the Presidium of the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Pyongyang’s version of the CCP’s Standing Politburo Committee, had decided to convene the 5th plenary session of the Central Committee of the 7th Congress for late December. The stated purpose of the 5th plenum is “to discuss and decide on crucial issues in line with the needs of the development of the Korean revolution and the changed situation at home and abroad.”

In the early days of Russian social democracy the central committee of the party was the key decision making body, and its meetings were characterised by robust debate. Just before the Bolshevik seizure of power the Politburo was secretly created as an insurrectionary directorate, contrary to party statute, however the prerogatives of the central committee were soon restored. As the dictatorship firmed the Politburo became the apex of power, and soon enough that apex was invested in a single figure, and the Central Committee did little more than ratify the reports and decisions of the party’s leaders. All of this was predicted in advance by Anarchists and Left Marxists. One of the last policy controversies, where there was real debate, proved revealing, that is the trade unions controversy where Trotsky, for instance, argued for a strict top-down military regime in the workplace. Basically, that is what was instituted, and it became clear, not that there should have been any doubt on this score earlier, that the Bolshevik revolution was in fact a counter revolution leading to the formation of a state capitalist society. One of the features of Stalinism is the toothless tiger like character of the Central Committee. This is a feature shared by so called socialist states that were not considered Stalinist, for instance Tito’s Yugoslavia. In 1972 Tito purged the League of Communists of Serbia of the so called “Serbian liberals” (his phrase) the leader of which, Marko Nikezic, was pursuing a policy of what might best be described as Glasnost. Nikezic is known as the only man who had the numbers against Tito, as he had the support of the Central Committee of the LCS, but he choose not to use them. This is a small, though important, indication of the essentially Stalinist character of nominally socialist Yugoslavia. However, key turning points were associated with Central Committee meetings for reasons to be soon made evident.

I digress, of course. The point here is pretty simple. The 5th plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK will hear and ratify the reports of the party leadership and will simply rubber stamp whatever decision the Presidium of the Politburo has decided in advance. Odd as its sounds, but in North Korea this is a type of reform. During the period of high Stalinism the Generalissimo, like Stalin, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, didn’t bother themselves with party meetings too much. The 6th Congress of the WPK was in 1980. The 7th was convened by Kim Jong Un in 2016. There was, however, in between these congresses a party Conference the WPK’s third. A Conference in the ruling parties of the nominally socialist states was actually the highest, on paper, decision making forum more fundamental than a Congress however conferences were reserved for rare and special occasions. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev convened a Conference at the height of the travails of Perestroika. He wanted to demonstrate that Perestroika had the broad support of the Party, especially given the fissures at the top that had by then publicly come to the surface. The third Conference of the WPK was convened by Kim Jong Il not long before his passing to anoint Kim Jong Un as his successor. The motive was no different to Gorbachev’s, i.e. a demonstration of broad party support. The 5th plenum of the 7th Central Committee will mostly be an exercise in propaganda for both domestic and external audiences. Domestically it will seek to demonstrate the single minded support of the WPK for whatever decision the Politburo has made beforehand.

In the context of denuclearisation I have long argued that we won’t see a return to 2017 until we first have another Central Committee plenum. Kim Jong Un, unlike Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, has convened regular meetings of the party as per party statute. The moratorium on long range missile and nuclear testing was formally ratified at the 3rd plenum of the 7th Central Committee in April 2018, as was the end of the Byungjin line policy of which this moratorium was a manifestation. Not long after the Hanoi Summit this year the 4th plenum was convened, and it ratified the remarks made by Kim Jong Un in his 2019 new year address. Namely, absent a more rational approach to denuclearisation from the United States by the end of the year, Pyongyang will pursue an unspecified “new way.” Now that the end of year deadline has come, with no change in US approach, the 5th plenum has been convened and the new way will be announced and rubber stamped by the Central Committee. Most analysts have ignored this sequence, and so they could not see that a Central Committee meeting would be convened prior to the real fireworks. They, rather, were too focused on “signalling” by way of ICBM testing before Kim’s deadline.

I had always thought this is how matters would proceed. See for example my analysis (April 2019) in this post here

The sequential, and thus far regular, meetings of the Central Committee and the Supreme People’s Assembly since the 7th Congress are a type of reform that might bear fruit in future…

Note the formulation of a return to the “original state,” likely a reference to the 2017 standoff what Scott Sagan referred to as “the Korean missile crisis.” Pyongyang has stated that it will wait for the US to change its “attitude” to the talks, that is to accept its reciprocal step-by-step formulation. North Korea is saying that it will wait a year for Washington to blink. In a year’s time, of course, the 5th plenum of the current Central Committee will meet…

Kim Jong Un’s Second Ascent to the Summit of Mount Paektu

The announcement of the convening of the 5th plenum didn’t attract much attention, however Kim Jong Un’s second ascent a top Mount Paektu on a white horse, at exactly the same time, ended up taking all the limelight. The second ascent had a decided martial aspect to it. The accompanying KCNA report often alluded to military themes, and this time Kim Jong Un was accompanied by the Chief of the General Staff and the Corps commanders of the Korean Peoples Army. These are the men entrusted with implementing the strategic direction of a second Korean war. Subsequent to this there have been numerous references to Mount Paektu and the guerrilla tradition in the North Korean media. Essentially, Pyongyang’s propaganda system is preparing North Koreans for a rough ride in 2020. This is a fairly good indication that Pyongyang is gearing up for what it anticipates to be a fraught strategic relationship with Washington next year, and it may also serve as a demonstration for external audiences of North Korea’s resolve to weather whatever tribulations Washington has in store for it.

Recent Politics of Denuclearisation and the Return of Tension

Just as their propaganda system is gearing up for a return to 2020, so is ours. This takes a different form, however. Here the objective is to paint North Korea as a uniquely perfidious negotiating partner with no real desire to engage in substantive talks on denuclearisation. Blaming North Korea for the collapse in diplomacy is a way of preparing the populations of the West for a return to confrontation.  There have been two key aspects to this propaganda. The first has been the widespread blaming of North Korea for the failure of the recent working level talks in Sweden and references to Washington’s attempts to be flexible as Kim Jong Un’s end of year deadline fast approaches. The second has been widespread misrepresentation of what North Korea agreed to at the Singapore Summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.

Let’s take each in turn.

The working level talks in Sweden was North Korea’s price for agreeing to Trump’s impromptu call on Twitter to a meeting between he and Kim Jong Un at Panmunjom. We are now asked to believe that in extracting this concession Pyongyang deliberately torpedoed those working level talks by upping its demands. North Korea’s position from the September 2018 Pyongyang Declaration onward, i.e. before, during, and after Hanoi, has been invariant. The next step in the reciprocal step-by-step denuclearisation process should be trading dismantlement of Yongbyon for limited sanctions relief targeting the civilian economy (where almost half the population are under nourished). The US, by contrast, sticks to its demand of wholesale, verified and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear programme prior to sanctions relief, which clearly is not, and is not meant to be, a serious negotiating position. The media, however, with its loyal think tank experts in toe, some former State Department officials, nonetheless tell us differently. The recent references to a newfound flexibility, notice they serve as a tacit admission of what I’ve just written, are also exercises in propaganda. You can see this because at the United Nations Security Council meeting devoted to North Korea held this week, at the behest of Washington, France and the United Kingdom ruled out support for sanctions relief doubtless a reflection of the stance of the boss in the White House. The object here is make a play of concern and flexibility, while all the while precluding diplomatic progress. The media, and the think tank experts coming along for the ride, naturally play their dutiful role. This is a propaganda exercise preparing us for a rough ride by pointing to implacable North Korean intransigence.

The second is fairly easy to refute but you’ll find plenty of references to it in the mainstream media. Both Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo have often stated, most especially in the recent period, that Pyongyang must complete what it agreed to at Singapore, namely the denuclearisation of North Korea. This is a falsehood, and one made knowingly. North Korea agreed at Singapore to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, not the denuclearisation of North Korea, and in part that’s understood as the elimination of nuclear danger on and around the entire peninsula. That means the United States must also denuclearise i.e. lower the salience of nuclear deterrence in the bilateral relationship and take significant steps toward strategic stability. Basically, this means denuclearisation entails some form of stable mutual deterrence in the absence of global disarmament. That’s what North Korea signed up to at Singapore.

As can be seen our propaganda system is gearing us up for 2020 just as theirs is gearing up North Koreans. There are two crucial differences, however. Firstly, we don’t have to participate in this at pain of death. We are under no obligation to repeat the staples of our own propaganda system, but we do so anyway. This is a much more interesting phenomenon both analytically and normatively than what one observes in North Korea. Secondly, the consequences of our falling into line with our propaganda system hitherto has befallen over there, as it were. Consequences in terms of maimed bodies, the dead, the starving, wrecked cities, and broken societies. Now it’s different. The consequences may well be assessed in maimed bodies, the dead, and wrecked cities over here too. As I have argued many times here, over more than a year, we see a type of renewed Melian dialogue in reverse, really something fundamentally new and not witnessed before in the history of international relations, where Athens is negotiating with a Melos that can make it suffer as it must. Those interested in the academic study of international relations should be all over this, but oddly they aren’t.

What Is to Be Done?

As noted, we have seen a return to tension. The old barbs have come to the fore, little rocket man and the dotard for example, and I am sure we are familiar with the record. This is not a full blown or irreversible return to 2017, at least not yet. This is a type of warming up for a return to fire and fury. We still might take up Pyongyang’s offer at Hanoi and seek to freeze its nuclear programme. This would be the rational approach. However, there’s one important political barrier. I am referring to something beyond the considerations of power at the heart of Washington’s calculations. Ours are relatively open and democratic societies. Our propaganda systems are a barrier, yes, but we don’t have to succumb to them. We could demand of our leaders a more sane approach to policy, one more mindful of security than power. An important barrier at work here is our very perception of North Korea. Weird little North Korea. North Korea, “another country” as Bruce Cumings put it. North Korea the wild, unknown and unknowable other country. This is manifested in all sorts of ways, usually through juvenile mockery. Like displaying pictures of Kim Jong Un knelling, arse just above ground, like a Russian gopnik, an obvious and racist reference to pissing Asians. Like showing a big gorilla, sitting in front of a small troop of guerrillas, in a clear, again racist, depiction of Kim Jong Un. Like “Juche fest” and “Juche bird,” and other such things. All of these, and much, much more, which are ubiquitous, depict North Korea as an alien other. But this is the thing. It’s hard to sell a rational policy of mutual deterrence with an alien other. Whatever we might make of North Korea’s internal arrangements nonetheless there remains no correlation between the internal structure of a society and its external behaviour. Witness the Athens and Sparta of Thucydides. It’s easy to see how this all fits into the more immediate claims made by our propaganda systems, that is the perfidious negotiating partner. North Korea is such a perfidious negotiating partner because it’s beyond all the norms of modern civilisation. Because it’s another country, and the other country treats of diplomacy as the Klingons might have.

The main contribution analysts and commentators can make to challenging the verities of our own propaganda systems is to point out there’s nothing peculiar about North Korea precluding our peaceful coexistence with it. The more we other the North Koreans the more we make peaceful coexistence with North Korea impossible.

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