A report that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un read at a congress of the ruling Korean Workers' Party (KWP) on May 7 suggests that he is enthusiastic about improving his country's relations with the international community while establishing itself as a nuclear power.
However, questions remain as to whether North Korea will be able to move ahead toward achieving a blueprint that Kim showed in the report while the country is increasingly isolated from the rest of the world over its nuclear and missile programs.
The May 8 issue of the Rodong Sinmun, the KWP's paper, was filled with articles summarizing Kim's report.
"The paper previously devoted 18 pages to covering the party congress 36 years ago, but this time it used 24 pages. The composition of the entire paper and that of articles summarizing the convention was almost identical to the one 36 years ago," said Atsuhito Isozaki, associate professor at Keio University.
Regarding a national policy that Kim attempted to envision in the report, Hajime Izumi, professor at Tokyo International University, said, "In short, it's a pragmatic line."
As the basis for his view, he pointed out that the report used the word, "strategy," instead of "a five-year plan" on national economic development. It also did not stick to the idea of establishing a federal system in unifying Korea and did not excessively underscore the need for U.S. forces to pull out of South Korea, among other factors.
In the report, Kim stressed that the five-year strategy from 2016 to 2020 must be thoroughly implemented. If the report used the words, a new "five-year plan," then the party would be required to subsequently verify whether the 2016-2020 strategy has been achieved. However, the word, "strategy," only shows the basic direction of the country's national policy.
North Korea is currently subject to severe sanctions imposed by the international community. Even if Pyongyang is to set numerical targets, the country would be unsure whether such goals are achievable, as it faces a severe energy situation.
North Korea had previously drawn up a "seven-year plan on the development of the people's economy," but it did not produce the intended results and relevant figures remained unclear.
Since the word, "strategy," was used, the country only declared it will "solve energy problems" and "increase its light industry output," and does not have to force its people to take action or sacrifice them to achieve its goals.
Pointing out that China translated the Chinese word that means "plan" in its five-year target it released in 2006 as "guidelines" in English, Seigakuin University professor Satoru Miyamoto said, "North Korea may be the same as China in that both countries are trying to take a realistic policy for a market economy while retaining 'planned economy' at least in name."
However, Miyamoto cautioned that it remains to be seen how far North Korea will reform its economy. "The report clearly states that the country will retain the 'state's unified leadership' over economic policy, and the report gives me the impression that (inconsistent) policies have been patched together."
Kim also refrained from making specific remarks on North-South relations. The Joint Statement of North and South, which Pyongyang and Seoul issued in 1972, mentioned three principles of peacefully unifying their homeland without relying on other countries.
At the previous party congress 36 years ago, then President Kim Il Sung proposed the establishment of what he called the "Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo" as a unified Korean state.
This time, however, Kim Jong Un neither emphasized a federal system regarding Korean reunification nor set even a tentative goal. There is a high hurdle for establishing a federal system in unifying the two Koreas because the establishment of such a system would require Pyongyang to drastically improve its ties with Seoul. As such, Kim appears prepared to flexibly respond to the matter without sticking to a federal system.
Moreover, Kim stopped short of openly demanding that U.S. troops be withdrawn from South Korea.
"This is also part of the pragmatic line. U.S. forces stationed in South Korea serve as a deterrent against North Korea, but Pyongyang thinks U.S. troops also serve as a deterrent against South Korea's excessive actions," said Izumi.
One of the focal points in the KWP report was how Kim would describe deadlocked relations between Japan and North Korea. However, the North Korean leader only said Japan "should reflect on and apologize for its past sins," and made no mention of its abduction of Japanese nationals.
Kwansei Gakuin University professor Shunji Hiraiwa noted that North Korea's official position is that the abduction issue has been settled, and said, "Since it was a report at a party congress, Japan was described in the context of struggle against imperialism."
Kim cannot open the next party congress if he shows unrealistically high targets and fails to achieve them. Since his own ability will be called into question at the next congress, Kim aims to attach importance to the KWP, normalize its management and use the party as the source of his power. Therefore, Kim had no choice but to take a pragmatic policy line to stay in power for a long time.
In the report, Kim said North Korea "is a responsible nuclear power," "will never launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack" and "will fulfill its responsibility for nuclear non-proliferation and strive to denuclearize the world." These are largely based on the country's past assertions.
However, Izumi views the word, "strive," as "new and positive."
Since 2006, North Korea has conducted four nuclear tests. There is no sign that Pyongyang will respect the process of dismantling its nuclear arms, which was incorporated in a September 2005 joint declaration of the six-party talks.
The South Korean Defense Ministry is wary that North Korea is prepared to conduct a fifth nuclear test at any time if Kim decides to go ahead with such a test. As such, none of the countries in the six-party talks have so far found a clue to breaking the deadlock over the issue.
However, the deadlock is also a heavy burden on North Korea. Sanctions imposed by the United Nations following the North's nuclear and missile tests will certainly strain the country's economy. In asking the international community to lift the sanctions, Pyongyang needs to say it's determined to seek nuclear disarmament even if it is just an empty promise.
Kim included the phrase, "strive to denuclearize the world," in the latest report apparently because he is desperate to make room for negotiations by all means, according to Izumi.
The possibility cannot be ruled out that the North Korean leader hopes that the United States, which is prudent about holding dialogue with North Korea, and China, which is enthusiastic about resuming the six-party talks, will take his words as a positive message, and will play a leading role in improving ties between the international community and Pyongyang.
Lee Seok-gi, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade, said, "If you take the situation positively, there is a possibility that North Korea will not conduct any more nuclear test for now since denuclearization was mentioned at the party congress. If so, that means North Korea will save China's face. North Korea may move toward dialogue (with the international community) following the party congress even though the sanctions will likely continue."