October 13, 2020

North Korea’s Workers’ Party Turned 75: Nothing to Celebrate

By Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)

Image credit: Anton Ivanov Photo - stock.adobe.com

On October 10, 2020, North Korea’s Workers’ Party (Korean Workers’ Party, KWP) celebrated its 75th anniversary, but should the world’s media and pundits do the same for a party and regime committing crimes against humanity? An ossified Stalinist bureaucracy, the KWP has survived the fall of communism by three decades. Kim Il-sung’s KWP established absolute control over a Korean populace that had known nothing but totalitarian political regimes for over half a millennium: 40 years of Japanese imperial occupation (1905–1945), preceded by 500 years under the feudal Chosun Dynasty.

Kim is the party, and the party is Kim, pursuant to North Korea’s monolithic ideology. Through indoctrination, regimentation, draconian control, surveillance, severe punishment of those suspected of disloyalty and their family members, and a chain of command and control that permeates all levels and walks of life in North Korea, the KWP has survived. Moreover, it has overseen hereditary transmission of power twice: from grandfather and party founder Kim Il-sung to son Kim Jong-il in July 1994; and from son Kim Jong-il to grandson Kim Jong-un in December 2011. Despite rumors about his poor health, Kim Jong-un has relied on the party’s Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) as a power base, just like his father did. He has purged hundreds of senior officials branded disloyal by the OGD. Many of them were executed by anti-aircraft machine gun. Bodies were pulverized, turned into pink mist.

As HRNK author Robert Collins points out in his seminal 2019 report on the KWP OGD, this powerful agency acts as an advisory body to Kim and a filter between him and the rest of North Korea and the outside world. The KWP OGD advises on Supreme Leader guidance. It transmits his orders down the chain of command. It assesses compliance at the local level. It punishes perceived failure and it rewards absolute loyalty reflected in dutiful implementation of party guidance. Through the OGD, the party calls the shots. It decides who lives and who dies, who gets promoted and who gets demoted. There is no daylight between the party and the Supreme Leader. They are one.

Currently, the KWP has 3.5 million members and 200,000 candidate members, out of a total population of 25 million. In North Korea, two other parties exist on paper only, and the KWP has commanded absolute control of every aspect of life, politics, economy, and society in North Korea since October 10, 1945. Occasional international media reports on “tension” between the party and the military (Korean People’s Army, KPA) are mistaken. There can be no rift. Party guidance moves everything in North Korea. Anyone who counts in North Korea is a party member first. The military belongs to the party, and so do all other institutions, such as the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the Provincial People’s Assemblies (PPA), the 270,000-strong internal security agencies, and the Socialist Labor Youth League. The nuclear and ballistic missile programs as well as North Korea’s Foreign Ministry and diplomatic corps are no exception. North Korea’s donju, the entrepreneurial nouveau riche, must submit to the KWP and Kim. In the de jure absence of private property in North Korea, and with the Criminal Code banning entrepreneurial activity, party protection guarantees business success. The old, unwritten social contract in North Korea was: “Be absolutely loyal to the party and the leader, and you will receive everything you need through the Public Distribution System (PDS).” Distribution depends on one’s job. Job assignments depend on one’s songbun social-political classification, based on perceived loyalty. After the great famine of the 1990s and the PDS collapse, that unwritten social contract changed to: “Be absolutely loyal to the party and the leader, and we will allow you limited opportunity to look after yourselves and your families.” In North Korea, market actors are not revisionists or revolutionaries. To survive, they must still prove their unwavering loyalty to the party.

During the October 10 military parade in Kim Il-sung Square, media and pundits focused on the larger, apparently upgraded version of the Hwasong-15 ballistic missile, the 11-axle TEL carrying it as well as other upgrades to North Korea’s military gear. All critical issues. One detail was perhaps overlooked. In the background, a slogan read: “Dang-ui Gundae.” “The Party’s military.” One must remember the overwhelming role that the KWP has played for 75 years. Diplomats, negotiators, military and security experts, and human rights defenders alike must remember that the Supreme Leader and the party are one. That is the one and only decisionmaker in North Korea. The rest is a façade. The KWP is responsible for the deaths of nearly 5 million in the Korean War, 3 million in the great famine of the 1990s, and hundreds of thousands in North Korea’s political prison camps. On the KWP’s 75th anniversary, there was nothing to celebrate. Only bereavement, grief, and rage for the millions of lives lost.