From December 26 to 30, 2023, Pyongyang hosted the 9th Enlarged Plenum of 8th WPK Central Committee, which summarized the results of the past year and set plans for the future. While much of the country was celebrating the arrival of 2024, the author was analyzing the materials of the plenum, adhering to the principle of ‘how you meet the new year, so you spend it. There were many interesting findings.
To begin with, the structure of the plenum has already become part of the tradition. At the event, Kim presented a report on the objectives, followed by a debate. Key issues, such as the state budget, were discussed in sectoral sections. This indicates that under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, North Korea is transitioning from a charismatic model to an institutional one. The plenum takes place over several days, during which delegates engage in discussions rather than simply acting as voting machines. Despite this, the South Korean media still refers to the delegates as ‘rubber-stamps.’ The plenum decision is legitimized by Kim’s closing speech, and both speeches should be seen as a guidance documents describing the country’s course for the near future.
The following items on the agenda were presented to the plenary session for discussion.
To summarize the implementation of the party and public policy plans in 2023 and the direction of the struggle in 2024.
To take more responsibility in carrying out socialist activities for schoolchildren.
To summarize the work of the Party’s Central Audit Commission for 2023.
The results of the execution of the state budget for 2023 and the draft state budget for 2024 are summarized.
On a series of issues aimed at strengthening the Party’s existing leading role.
On December 26th, Kim Jong-un personally reviewed the report on the first item. The report provided a detailed analysis of the accomplishments and shortcomings of the past year, as well as outlining the goals for the upcoming year. Kim assessed the implementation of Party and government policies in the past year, which he called “a year of great turning point”, in which North Korea “has left a great trace in the glorious path of development to improve national power and increase the prestige of the country. according to the KCNA news agency.”
According to the report, the tasks for the year were generally fulfilled and “12 milestones in the development of the national economy were reached”, but unfortunately, as is traditional for such reports, there were no concrete figures. Compared to 2020, the production of pig iron increased by 2.7 times, rolled steel by 1.9 times, machine tools by 5.1 times, cement by 1.4 times, and nitrogen fertilizers by 1.3 times. GDP increased by 1.4 times. The DPRK leader’s most notable achievement was the achievement of the grain production plan, although it was largely due to the supply of “patriotic rice” and the plan was fulfilled by 103%. And in view of the difficult weather conditions in 2023, it can be considered to be a victory.
Much has been built. Both residential complexes for tens of thousands of apartments on the territory of Pyongyang and other cities of the country (more than twice as many compared to 2022) and infrastructure facilities. Kim Jong-un reported progress in the construction of irrigation canals and the development of salt marshes, wheat processing facilities, and other related programs.
The Institute of Pedagogical Sciences was established as a research facility. The science library of Kim Il Sung University was renovated. Additionally, over 160 schools and kindergartens were constructed, along with new pharmaceutical factories and institutions for disease prevention. Other facilities, such as livestock farms, children’s recreation centers, summer theaters, universities, infectious disease dispensaries, basic seasoning factories, forestry science institutes, dairy cow farms, and flying clubs were also built. These facilities were constructed to meet the country’s immediate economic needs and provide everyday convenience for its inhabitants.
Kim highlighted the ongoing legislative efforts to specify and clarify legal rules and regulations in line with Party policy and actual circumstances, while eliminating all undefined entities without exception. 110 sectoral laws and regulations were revised or modified. These Acts include the Employment Act, the Financial Inspection and Control Act, the Irrigation Act, the Nurturing of Outstanding Talent Act, the Placement of Productive Forces Act, and the Civil Servants Act. This results in a legal guarantee for the further consolidation of our excellent state and social order.
Furthermore, the improvements made to the process of electing deputies to the Supreme People’s Assemblies, which were previously discussed, received a positive evaluation. The method for electing deputies to all levels of the Supreme People’s Assemblies has been improved to emphasize the Republic’s popular character and further strengthen the state power bodies.
Kim noted the successes in the military-scientific field, including the launches of the Hwasong-17 and Hwasong-18 ICBMs and the launch of the first reconnaissance satellite.
The second point is important as it demonstrates the ongoing effort to improve people’s living standards. The regime provides schoolchildren with briefcases, uniforms, and even shoes as a means of exerting control, since it is unable to do so through the transfer of goods. Kim Jong-un explicitly stated that for students, the provision is not utilitarian-economic work, but political work.
The third and fifth items on the agenda are related to measures aimed at improving the structure of the state apparatus, particularly the central audit commission. This commission has been granted significant powers under Kim Jong-un, similar to China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
During the organizing part of the plenum, it was made clear that the regime’s alleged mass repression is a myth. We are referring to Pak Jong- chon, who was once one of the country’s top five leaders and responsible for military affairs, but then vanished from the public eye. But now Pak is back as a member of the WPK Politburo and a secretary of the Central Military Committee.
Cho Jung Ren, director of the Party’s Military Industry Department, was also appointed a member of the Politburo and secretary of the Central Committee.
Under Kim Jong-un, there is a practice of ‘temporary disgrace’ where individuals are removed from their positions and may work at a construction site or as a director of a sawmill for a period of time. After demonstrating loyalty to the party, they are reinstated to their previous positions. Contrary to the portrayal by Western propagandists of him as a classic dictator, Kim Jong-un seems to understand that mass shootings, which some people adore, only work when there are people to replace those who were shot.
Finally, Kim’s most important statement, which the Western media highlighted as the main content of the plenum, was that unification is cancelled! This is the point that requires further elaboration.
In the author’s previous texts, they have often highlighted that North Korea’s view of the South has shifted, and both sides have simultaneously abandoned the illusions of unification. Previously, this was a crucial factor in the inter-Korean agenda. It was assumed that the division would be temporary and that both North and South would have structures specifically responsible for the process. In North Korea, the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea is responsible for this goal, while in South Korea, it is the Ministry of Unification.
However, since the late 2010s, and particularly after the 2018 Olympic warming, which demonstrated the limited interaction between the two Korean states, both North and South have come to realize that unification may be an unattainable goal that would create more problems than benefits. Furthermore, the North favored the ‘one country, two systems’ approach, while the South intentionally referred to reunification instead of unification.
In both Pyongyang and Seoul, the previous paradigm was abandoned, although the process took slightly different paths. The decision was logically justified by the position of the other side. Seoul transformed the Ministry of Unification from a liaison agency to a propaganda and intelligence organization. In the North, the first indication of a shift in agenda was the use of the term ‘Republic of Korea,’ often with quotation marks or the qualifier ‘so-called.’
Not all audiences may be aware that North Korea and South Korea use different names to refer to their respective states in Korean. In South Korea, it is referred to as ‘Daehan’ by the Korean Provisional Government in Exile, which was established in 1919 and controlled by the Nationalists. In North Korea, the term ‘Joseon’ referred to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that existed in the South between the surrender of the Japanese and the arrival of the Americans, as well as several leftist organizations. Until recently, the term ‘Taehan’ has been heavily restricted in North Korea. During diplomatic tensions, South Korea (ROK) was referred to as either ‘South Joseon’ or ‘South Side’. This statement emphasizes that North Korea and South Kora are part of a shared space. The use of the South Korea’s term indicates a break in this relationship.
And now, Kim Jong-un delivered a closing speech titled ‘On the Direction of the Struggle in 2024.’ The content of the economic section was expected: there were two years left until the end of the Five-Year Plan and one should try one’s best because by the end of the year “an exact guarantee of the fulfillment of the Five-Year Plan should be created”. Based on the new main objectives, it is necessary to continue in the same direction, with emphasis on heavy engineering, construction, mechanization of agriculture, and improvement of irrigation systems, as well as the silk and fish industries.
However, the DPRK leader abandoned the foreign policy section. More specifically, the security situation on the Korean Peninsula has been analyzed and assessed as dangerously close to nuclear war. The intentions of hostile forces for military confrontation have also been evaluated. An important political decision has been made to accelerate the rapid development of the nation’s defense capability.
Kim interprets the ‘Washington Declaration,’ the annulment of the North-South Military Agreement, and the increase in military exercises involving US strategic weapons as ‘vile confrontational intrigues of the United States and its satellites against our Republic. ‘According to Kim, Seoul’s preparation for a war of aggression is not only about the exercises, but also about how the South Korea’s Armed Forces are being ‘re-formed and built up,’ and ‘extremist military fanatics’ are taking key positions. In this situation, the word ‘war’ has become a realistic reality and not an abstract concept. Kim said he has no choice but to press forward with developing nuclear missile capabilities, launching three additional reconnaissance satellites in 2024, producing new UAVs of various types, means of electronic warfare, and even initiating a ‘second shipbuilding revolution’.
On the other hand, the civil and territorial defense forces have been assigned a series of goals, including conducting guerrilla warfare in the event of an invasion.
Russia and China were not mentioned separately, but the DPRK leader set tasks to further strengthen the basis of support and solidarity for their state. This includes developing relations with the ruling parties of socialist countries and anti-imperialist and independent countries that oppose the hegemonic strategy of the United States and the West, in accordance with the changing international situation. However, when it comes to USA, it is important to consistently adhere to the principle of fighting the United States and its adversaries with strength and determination, and pursuing an overwhelming and offensive policy.
Based on a careful analysis of the contentious history of inter-Korean relations, which have been characterized by distrust and confrontation, a proposal has been made for a significant shift in the approach to dealing with South Korea.
Kim directly said that “no one can deny that the most hostile two states are now coexisting on the Korean Peninsula,” and this is “an inevitable result of the history of inter-Korean relations.” South Korea’s plan to eliminate North Korea does not depend on whether Democrats or Conservatives are in power. Furthermore, North Korea’s plan for reunification involves the concept of ‘one nation, one state, and two systems,’ while South Korea aims to create a larger Republic of Korea. This is because Article 3 of the Constitution states that South Korea includes the Korean Peninsula and adjacent territories and has not been repealed. And Kim quoted it!
Kim perceives South Korea as a colonial state that lacks politics, is heavily influenced by American culture, and relies solely on the United States for defense and security. Inter-Korean relations are no longer based on tribal affiliations, but have evolved into a relationship between two hostile belligerents.
According to scholar Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar specializing in Korean studies, North Korea can no longer consider the South a partner in the unification struggle. He stated that from now on, the relationship between the South and the North should be viewed as that of two hostile states engaged in armed conflict. At the same time, there is no longer any trace of opposition between the South Korean government and the South Korean people in his speech. Such opposition was quite common when the South Korean government was referred to as puppets of the United States, while the people were noted to be dealt with and unified. In his speech, Kim Jong-un referred to South Korea as a separate and hostile state. In fact, it may imply a transition to the East German model. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) consistently emphasized that West and East Germany were two distinct states with distinct nations, and that unification was not a formal goal. It seems that a similar transition is taking place in North Korea.
Therefore, “the vicious cycle of dialogue and confrontation must be halted,” and the unification of the two Koreas is plainly futile. “It is necessary to objectively assess reality and take appropriate measures to reorganize the Party Central Committee and the United Front Department, and fundamentally change the principles and direction of the struggle. The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland is likely to be abolished, and the Office of the United Front may have its status downgraded, with a reduction in its role and mission.” Movements in this direction have already started. On January 1, 2024, “Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui held a meeting with senior officials in charge of “Anti-Enemy Affairs“. The meeting was attended by senior officials in the field related to affairs with South Korea. Ri Son-gwon, Head of the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, was also present. This department is responsible for psychological operations and relations with South Korea. In accordance with the policy of not seeking unification with South Korea, it is expected that the United Front Department will join the Foreign Ministry.
“And if the enemy chooses an anti-republican military confrontation, one should not hesitate to strike a crushing blow and completely destroy the enemy’s capital and the military gangster rabble by using the entire arsenal of super-powerful means.”
Promises to pacify the South with nuclear weapons caused hysteria. South Korean experts discussed the characterization of inter-Korean relations as those of ‘two hostile countries at war’ and expressed concern that the regime could use its nuclear weapons against South Korea. The National Intelligence Service warned of a high probability of North Korea carrying out military provocations early next year, ahead of South Korea’s parliamentary elections in April and the US presidential election in November.
During the broadcast of Kim’s speech on DPRK TV on January 1, images of the leaders of South Korea, the United States, and Japan holding a summit at Camp David were used. It was noted that attention was drawn to this fact. “This is highly unusual,” stated Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
However, some commentators, as usual, took the quote out of context, as the said “appeasement” was positioned as a “response” to aggressive military provocations by Seoul. Pyongyang’s statements regarding ‘turning Seoul into a sea of fire’ as a response to provocations in the North are not new. This threat has been made repeatedly in the past. According to Oleg Kiryanov, a Korean scholar and correspondent of Rossiyskaya Gazeta in Seoul, Pyongyang frequently engages in scaremongering against the United States and South Korea. Additionally, they often make statements about building up a ‘nuclear missile shield and baton’ which serve as tactical theses.
Thus, the main element of the plenum was a radical change in inter-Korean strategy, abandoning the special status of inter-Korean relations. The other outcomes aimed at improving governance were equally significant. Regarding the threatening rhetoric, it should be considered in a regional context. It is hoped that the situation on the peninsula will not escalate beyond aggressive statements, replicating the situation of the Cold War.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.