North Korea still stable despite external vulnerabilities | East Asia Forum
North Korea seems to have had an internally stable 2015. Its economy is far from faltering and Kim Jong-un has firmly consolidated his power base. There were no explicit signs of internal challenge. Kim is both reigning and ruling. But Pyongyang’s provocative behaviour in the international domain could produce severe consequences for North Korea. Uncertainty remains high.
In late October, Pyongyang announced that it will hold the Seventh Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) in May 2016, 35 years after the Sixth Party Congress in 1980. At the first Inter-Korean Summit in 2000, the late North Korean chairman Kim Jong-il mentioned to then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung that he would convene a congress, but it was never realised. Kim Jong-un succeeded power without the congress ever being held. This announcement is therefore a significant move.
Kim Jong-un is likely to use the upcoming party congress as a platform to declare the beginning of a new era under his leadership. His 2015 New Year speech had already hinted the possibility of redirecting the governing ideology.
Kim Jong-un’s previous New Year speeches made it clear that his rule is founded on two pillars: the ideological lines of his grandfather Kim Il-sung and father Kim Jong-il. But in 2015, such ideological edifices did not appear. Instead, Kim Jong-un routinely mentioned old rhetoric such as strengthening monolithic leadership, juche (self-reliance), as well as the importance of songun (military first) politics. The North Korean leader may well introduce his own brand of ruling ideology at the Seventh Party Congress in 2016.
The decision reveals Kim Jong-un’s growing confidence in economic performance and power consolidation. North Korea underwent major economic difficulties in 2015 — partly because of international sanctions and poor harvests, and partly because of falling prices of coal and iron ore that accounted for almost half of its exports.
But Pyongyang’s economic performance has remained rather robust, owing to the flourishing informal sector. Since 2009, more than 400 jangmadang (informal marketplaces) have been introduced. They have facilitated the distribution of necessary consumer goods through a quasi-market mechanism. Such informal markets critically mitigated the negative consequences of severe drought and poor harvest. This was a sharp contrast to the period of mass starvation of the 1990s, after which the public distribution system collapsed. Equally important is the advent of donju (money holders) who are serving as new agents of capital accumulation as well as sources of valuable hard currency.