The 5th Plenary session of the Central Committee of the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea is now in session. The plenum was convened earlier in the month by the Presidium of the Political Bureau, equivalent in hierarchy to the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China. North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, reports that the 5th plenum on Saturday began the first day of its deliberations. My understanding is that the 3rd and 4th plenums of the 7th Central Committee met for just the one day. The 3rd plenum, convened just before the Singapore Summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, rubber stamped the end of the byungjin line policy, so that puts the multiday nature of this plenum into context. This is an indication of the importance attached to this plenary session. The Central Committee plenum was preceded by an enlarged emergency meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Party, and a major propaganda campaign. For discussion of these (and more) see my last post here.
We know little about the 5th plenum bar what we can glean from the KCNA statement. So, let us seek to interpret some of its passages. The Central Committee meeting is being accompanied by a number of observers from state ministries and state institutions and “chairpersons of the provincial people’s committees, chairpersons of the provincial rural economy committees, chairpersons of the city and county party committees and officials of major fields and units and the armed forces organs.” Note the presence of senior commanders of the Korean People’s Army including “major fields” of the KPA. The KCNA report does not mention the presence of officials from fraternal parties, especially from the Communist Party of China. The WPK may send a report on its deliberations and decisions through a Party delegation to Beijing subsequent to the meeting closing.
The KCNA carries a brief account of why the plenum was convened, although a little more detailed than the report earlier in the month which announced the decision of the Presidium of the Political Bureau;
The WPK convened the plenary meeting in order to overcome the manifold and harsh trials and difficulties and further accelerate the development of the revolution with transparent anti-imperialist independent stand and firm will and to discuss important matters arising in the party building and activities and in the building of the state and national defence.
This gives is something to work with. Let us focus on three words here, namely “accelerate,” “transparent,” and independent” When Kim Jong Un first ascended Mount Paektu on a white horse this year I had stated here (and on Twitter) this could mean, should it prefigure some policy shift, that Pyongyang might adopt a policy of “acceleration.” The white horse could have been construed as channelling the Chollima Movement, a Stakhanovite movement emphasising accelerated development which had a mythical horse as its propaganda centrepiece.
We know Kim Jong Un has put a lot of store on science and technology transforming the productive base of the economy. Mikhail Gorbachev presided over his first Central Committee plenum as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in April 1985. At that April 1985 plenum Gorbachev introduced his first reform programme which he called “uskoreniye” or “acceleration.” To be sure Gorbachev made mention of “perestroika” and “glasnost” but those came to enjoy greater emphasis later. Here the emphasis was on acceleration, and that in interesting terms. In his report to the plenum Gorbachev stated “the party advances the cardinal acceleration of scientific-technical progress to the forefront as the main strategic lever for the intensification of the national economy, for the optimal utilization of the party’s cumulative potential.” The emphasis on acceleration that can be found in the KCNA statement on the deliberations of the 5th plenum may prefigure something not too dissimilar.
Russia still struggles with “uskoreniye,” for it is not an economy based on high tech and high valued added manufacturing production. Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Medvedev (he emphasised high technology industry), and, of course, Putin have failed to achieve “uskoreniye.” The more radical perestroika and glasnost was inspired by the early failure of “uskoreniye” and the perceived requirement that an acceleration of scientific and technological progress required democratisation, openness, and a free market economy. China is now embarking on an effort to change its growth model from one less based on being the world’s assembly plant to one more based on high technology, high value added industrial production. Should China succeed then the Russian supposition that scientific and technological progress sufficient for the transformation of the productive base of the economy requires neoliberal free markets and democratisation would be proven wrong.
You need only guess what the leadership in Pyongyang thinks about the matter. The key problem faced by the North Korean economy at the moment, sanctions aside, is what Pyongyang calls “the energy problem.” It will be interesting to see what North Korea does in 2020 on the nuclear energy front. What “acceleration” would entail in terms of nitty, gritty specifics requires further information. A brief KCNA statement does not provide that further information. Korea Central Television tonight, following a brief report on the 5th plenum, did feature the following image of a computer numerically controlled machine tool, which is consistent with our hypothesis.
The bit about “transparency” is highly significant. This goes right to the heart of Ri Thae Song’s, Vice Foreign Minister for US Affairs, famous or infamous “Christmas gift” statement. As I have argued throughout December here, and on Twitter, the Christmas gift was not the key aspect of that statement. Rather it was Ri’s saying that North Korea’s nuclear and defence programme would be open and transparent given the collapse of denuclearisation diplomacy with Washington. This is what Ri said;
The DPRK has done everything transparently and openly so far. It feels no need to hide what it will do from now on and therefore, reminds the U.S. once again that the year-end time limit comes nearer.
Now look at the key part of the KCNA report on the first day of the 5th plenum; “with transparent anti imperialist independent stand.” Ri’s statement clearly implies that North Korea’s bomb is coming out of the basement, the two static hot tests of a large liquid propelled engine at Sohae for a new strategic weapon backed those words with deeds, and this part of the KCNA report on the first day of the 5th plenum is a direct reference to this. North Korea considers that denuclearisation talks have failed and that it will accelerate its nuclear programme out in the open as it were. This, presumably, will mean flight tests of missiles including long range IRBMs and ICBMs and also nuclear weapons tests in future perhaps the near future. Pyongyang anticipates that this will not go down lightly in Washington and could lead to a crisis. North Korea is evidently preparing for this likely eventuality.
The “independent” is also of no small significance. That likely means North Korea understands there will be no sanctions relief and so therefore Kim Jong Un’s “new way” is basically “our way.” Kim Jong Un, in his 2019 new year address, stated that should the denuclearisation process collapse, so providing little to no prospect for sanctions relief, North Korea would proceed along a “new way.” That new way was not further specified. North Korea must pursue an independent path toward acceleration and that will come with an anti imperialist stance. That could mean a number of things, perhaps a turn toward Moscow and Beijing and away from Seoul and Washington. We cannot be certain at this stage. At the outer edge of the possible it could mean North Korea considers its nuclear and missile technology to be an export item to be traded for access to high technology capital products. North Korea, like, has a bit of a comparative advantage now in these technologies. Recall that the 3rd plenum of the 7th Central Committee stated that Pyongyang would not proliferate that technology through export. An active stance against the global nonproliferation regime is not inconsistent with the KCNA statement as that regime is considered by Pyongyang to be a form of imperialism.
The first day appears to have been devoted to a report to the Central Committee from Kim Jong Un. The KCNA statement appears to have been written as that report was ongoing. Hopefully we might land ourselves a transcript. We surely shall have reason to post some more regarding the 5th plenary session of the 7th Central Committee in the coming days.