A Rare Congress and Mixed Signals in North Korea
For the first time in more than 35 years, North Korea is preparing to hold a full Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK). Originally intended to be a regular occurrence for the WPK, party congresses convened only sporadically until 1980, when Kim Jong Il was named as Kim Il Sung's successor, and juche (loosely translated as self-reliance) was formalized as the government's official guiding philosophy.
In the years since, though the WPK has officially remained at the center of the North Korean political system, party congresses have lost their central role in the political cycle. Scheduled to begin May 6, the 2016 congress marks the revival of a more public political style in the country, playing on the formalism of party structure and events.
Since rising to power in North Korea, Kim Jong Un has emulated his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, more than his father, Kim Jong Il — not only in his appearance but also in his leadership style. Much more than Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung was a public figure, more likely to press the flesh and more inclined to work through the party structure. In part, adopting his grandfather's mien enabled Kim Jong Un to rapidly gain legitimacy and recognition as a leader: Unlike his father, he could not rely on nearly 15 years of public appearances as the chosen successor.
At the same time, Kim Jong Un's divergent leadership style also reflects the difficulties of managing North Korea in his father's backroom manner. Without knowledge of all of the various factions, personalities and side arrangements, the young leader found imitating Kim Jong Il's top-down approach to be a daunting task. Early struggles inside his administration, along with the various purges, represented an attempt to restructure the balance of power among North Korea's elite, break some of the backroom systems and reinstate more formal channels of authority. Though much still happens behind closed doors, and though personnel changes still often occur long before they are announced, North Korea has moved back toward a more conventional structure of power and government.
The 2016 party congress, then, will not reveal anything significantly new, but rather will confirm the shifts and changes in the bureaucracy's structure and personnel. To a certain extent, this will move North Korea a bit further from one-man rule as Kim Jong Un accepts and even encourages greater responsibility among various departments and ministries. Moreover, Pyongyang has opened the party congress to foreign reporters, using it as an opportunity to showcase Kim Jong Un's government not only to North Korea, but also to the rest of the world.
On a Mission for Missiles
Meanwhile, a series of missile tests has been underway in the country. In recent weeks, Pyongyang has conducted several tests of both the Musudan road-mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile and a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Although these systems are critical to a viable nuclear weapons program, international observers consider the tests to have been partial successes at best. In some ways, this is not unexpected. Compared with other countries, North Korea carries out very few tests of its missile systems. And even in the best-funded programs, numerous failures pave the road to success. On the other hand, the tests may have been accelerated to coincide with the party congress, thereby increasing the risk of failure.
For Pyongyang, the Musudan failures may be the most significant. These road-mobile systems, capable of reaching U.S. forces in Japan and perhaps even Guam, have already been deployed (with conventional warheads) as an important component of the country's deterrence strategy. North Korea often deploys major weapons systems with minimal testing. However, Musudan's failures suggest that the entire system may be faulty. By comparison, the partial success of the SLBM is less worrisome. After all, the system is still a developing technology, on which Pyongyang appears to be conducting a more robust domestic test cycle than it has on previous missiles.
But aside from the party congress, a deeper reason underlies Pyongyang's accelerated missile testing. North Korea is nearing the moment when it can demonstrate each component of a functional nuclear weapons system. These components include missiles (preferably mobile ones that cannot be easily detected and destroyed prior to launch and that are capable of reaching a target), nose cones that can survive re-entry and small enough nuclear weapons to fit atop them. While North Korea does not need to demonstrate all of these features in a single test, it must nevertheless prove each one.
Making a Gamble
As Pyongyang approaches a viable nuclear weapon and delivery system, the pressure is rising for the United States and other countries to pre-empt it. Consequently, the final moments of North Korea's transition from a working program to a demonstrated system are the most dangerous, providing a last chance to stop the country from becoming a nuclear weapons state. For North Korea, then, these final steps must happen quickly. Because 2016 is a presidential election year in the United States, Pyongyang may feel it has a window to finalize its nuclear arms program while the United States is preoccupied with domestic politics and unlikely to take military action. Furthermore, having just held parliamentary elections and facing a presidential contest in 2017, South Korea, too, is in the midst of political transition.
North Korea is making a gamble, one that bets both on its read of U.S. politics and on its own ability to overcome technological hurdles. The country's various concurrent activities — throwing a party congress and opening the country to foreign reporters, sentencing another U.S. citizen to hard labor and offering a last-minute deal to end its nuclear program — serve to confuse the situation and keep people guessing about just what Pyongyang is or is not up to. Even the failed missile tests leave room for doubt abroad, potentially buying North Korea a little more time. And though success in these final stages is not guaranteed, Pyongyang is striving to achieve technology and capabilities that many other countries attained decades ago. Thus, it would take a political decision, rather than a technological struggle, to delay or end North Korea's nuclear ambitions.