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Is North Korea's party congress a hint of 'perestroika?'

Pyongyang will hold its first party congress in decades, but will the meeting open the reclusive state to the world or underscore the regime's current path? DW talks to expert Ruediger Frank about possible outcomes.

North Korea has announced that it will hold a Congress of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang next May, the first such meeting in 36 years. In a statement, the country said it was faced with "the heavy yet sacred task" of building a "thriving" nation – but did not say what exactly would be discussed during the congress.

The Workers' Party last held a congress in October 1980, under North Korea's founding leader Kim Il Sung. His son and successor Kim Jong Il never called a congress, however. The meeting in May will, therefore, be a first for current leader Kim Jong Un, who took power after the death of his dictator father in late 2011.

During his first four years as leader, Kim has struggled to revive the North's declining economy, while also dealing with an international standoff over his country's nuclear and missile programs. Despite challenges, the country has an abundance of mineral resources and has even seen the development of a rising, more informed middle class.

In a DW interview, the North Korean expert Ruediger Frank discusses North Korea's potential as the next "East Asian miracle" as well as the remote, but possible, option that the meeting could mean a North Korean version of "glasnost and perestroika."

Professor Rüdiger Frank

Ruediger Frank: 'Kim obviously feels safe enough to hold such a major event now. He would not hold a party congress if he were not certain he could control even the smallest detail'

DW: You believe that the Congress of the Workers' Party announced for next May in Pyongyang is significant; how did you reach that conclusion?

Ruediger Frank: A party congress is always a major event in a socialist country. It is an occasion when information is disseminated - which is otherwise quite scarce - when personnel changes take place, when stock of past achievements is taken, and when new strategies are announced.

On some occasions - as with China in 1982, the Soviet Union in 1986, Vietnam in 1986 - such strategic changes at party congresses went as far as reforming the whole system beyond recognition, with a major impact on the country and beyond.

North Korea has abstained from holding a party congress for 36 years. That hiatus is now over and it is impossible not to regard this event as significant.

What do you anticipate might be announced?

There are two options: either the 7th Party Congress is simply part of the overall strategy of Kim Jong Un to normalize the state of affairs in North Korea, or something is going to happen that demands a platform that has not been used for more than three decades.

Normalization would include the continued resuscitation of the party and its institutions as the major instruments of power. That process started in September 2010 when the country held its first party conference in 44 years. It was followed by the next party conference in April 2012, and the process would now be continued with the 7th Party Congress in 2016. The 8th Congress could possibly take place in 2021, marking a return to the routine of having a congress every five years.

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If the party congress would thus mark the return to a new normal, we could expect routine speeches and announcements: how tough the times were, how heroically all obstacles were overcome, how brilliant the future will be, and so forth. A few posts will be shifted, a few cadres will be criticized and a few smaller adjustments will be announced.

A somewhat more remote option is that Kim Jong Un has something important to tell his people and wants to use the party congress as the platform. In that case, we might see the announcement of a North Korean version of reform and opening - "glasnost" and "perestroika."

It has been 36 years since a similar meeting of the party - why has it taken so long?

This is very hard to say. The official explanation I received from the North Koreans was that no important development had taken place that would have justified such a congress. This is questionable, if we consider what has happened since 1980: the collapse of the global socialist system, the transformation of China, the death of Kim Il Sung and of Kim Jong Il, the first-ever summit meeting with South Korea, and so forth.

We could speculate that the leadership in Pyongyang felt insecure about the above developments and did not want to comment on them during a party congress. Or it simply did not want to spend the necessary resources in times of crisis. Last but not least, the longer you wait with holding such a congress, the less routine and the more extraordinary such an event becomes. This would raise expectations among the population to levels that would be too high to be met. So you continue not holding a congress until you feel secure enough to either risk disappointing your people, or to give them what they hope for.

Does Kim feel more secure in his control over the country now?

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Kim obviously feels safe enough to hold such a major event now. He has cleaned the ranks of the party and military during the last four years and he has built his legitimacy amongst the population. He would not hold a party congress if he were not certain he could control even the smallest detail. The situation in North Korea looks relatively stable.

However, the growing middle class - a new phenomenon that emerged about 15 years ago - and the increasing amount of external information, in particular from and about China, as well as new communications means, such as mobile phones, have also changed North Korean society. People are now better informed, more self-confident and more demanding.

Kim Jong Un has promised to make the lives of his people better and he needs to deliver. So far he is doing OK, but he must find a way to sustain that improvement; otherwise, the current stability will quickly evaporate, like it did elsewhere.

If economic transformation is the North's desire, how soon might it happen?

North Korea has, at least on paper, almost all the necessary ingredients for another East Asian miracle. Unlike Japan and South Korea, it even has abundant mineral resources. What is missing is access to international finance, technology and markets. All this can only be achieved through a normalization of the relationship with the United States. Therefore, if Kim Jong Un is really intent on lifting his country's economic development to the next level, this will also involve a significant improvement of relations with the US and its allies, including Japan and South Korea.

Workers at a garment factory in an inter-Korean industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Kaesong

Frank: North Korea's growing middle class is 'better informed, more self-confident and more demanding'

China has been the origin and destination of 90 percent of North Korea's trade. This would feel uncomfortable to any leader. Trade diversification offers another strong incentive for an improvement of external relations.

Nothing of the above will happen, however, unless the nuclear issue is resolved. This could either be complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID), as demanded by the US; or a creative solution that allows North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons and at the same time satisfies the security demands of its neighbors. But this is in the realm of politics and hence impossible to predict.

Ruediger Frank is a professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna. He also serves as head of the Department of East Asian Studies in Vienna and is an adjunct professor at Korea University and at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

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