Interview. North Korea expert Antonio Fiori explains why Kim Jong-un is so confident these days.

At North Korea Party Congress, Kim wants to show he doesn’t need China or anybody else

North Korea’s first Party Congress in 36 years commenced Friday. To talk about the congress, the leadership of Kim Jong-un and the recent posture of the regime, we interviewed Antonio Fiori, one of the foremost experts on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The University of Bologna professor lectures on the international relations of East Asia and recently published a book, Il nido del falco: Mondo e potere in Corea del Nord.

Professor, let’s start with the congress. Although very little is known of this event, the last one was in 1980. What does it mean, and what can we expect in terms of strategy of the Korean leadership?

We are all waiting to see what will be decided because we don’t have any way of knowing what things they will be deciding. After all, this kind of congress has not been convened since 1980. I think it will open with a report from Kim Jong-un, and I expect, but could be proven wrong, an update on the two issues under the byungjin [or “parallel track,” Kim’s project to simultaneously develop nuclear capability and the economy], a policy that started when Kim assumed power but has roots in the politics of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

What we assume will happen is that Kim will use the congress to present the results of the byungjin, which has two prongs: His speech will surely touch on the military point — the nuclear aspect of the project that culminated at the beginning of 2016 with a nuclear test — something he always wants to talk about. Because the other goal to improve economic conditions has not really been reached, he will have to mask it with rhetoric that does not suggest the need for economic reforms.

I do not believe, in fact, that we can expect economic reforms in China’s mold, though the Chinese continue to recommend it. From an economic point of view, although the country is facing many problems, in the last roughly 15 months we have witnessed a rather unexpected GDP growth. This is no longer the 1990s.

The congress is a purely symbolic meeting, I think that’s quite well ascertained. Everything that has happened recently was nothing but an attempt to build the legitimacy of the leader. There was also an expectation of another nuclear test in recent days, but thankfully so far there are no major developments in this regard.

But from an economic point of view, what are the young leader’s options?

I don’t expect any major reforms, and it is not clear what their objectives will be or where we should turn our attention. It will not move toward either a Chinese-style or a Vietnamese-style reform because those reforms would mean an opening to the outside, so I would tend to exclude it. Probably there will be more collaboration with China in the northern part of the country, the maintenance of special economic zones that Beijing completely controls, and maybe some more opening to private markets (stalls or supermarkets that now exist within the country) and activities of this kind which are at the very least designed by the regime so as not to take complete responsibility for the economy.

Can it be said that this congress will mark the end of Kim’s consolidation of power, transitioning to air-tight leadership?

Absolutely. The process began with Kim’s investiture, and he has been consolidating since his father’s death. I am convinced of this even though often the press talks about a series of executions of this person or that person, as if it were a new thing. These are events that have always existed in Korea. Kim is not doing anything new: When he took power he gradually liberated himself from the vast group of people loyal to his father and whom he was told would not be faithful to him. He prefers to surround himself with a new band of characters who were very minor but who guaranteed absolute loyalty. He did what dictators normally do, which is to surround himself with loyal people.

China seems more and more annoyed, although as your book points out, this is not news. But it is also true that these signals are much stronger than before.

One of the major efforts that I made in the book is on the Chinese question: North Korea has been annoying China for some time. Since the times of Deng Xiaoping there has been a kind of loosening of relations. Deng had guided Kim Il-sung toward economic reforms, but Kim was there to receive the help.

China has tried to steer Korea toward a new economic policy for some time. The last administration is very annoyed by North Korea; also from a symbolic point of view, it is there for all to see. Xi Jinping has never considered visiting North Korea, and neither have the Koreans paid homage to their traditional ally. That says a lot: There is a fraying of relations.

Chinese print media now constantly criticize Pyongyang publicly; this is the first time this has happened. In addition, China is supporting the U.S.’s position because if it is true that it has ratified the sanctions on the surface while trying to convince everyone to break them, it is also true that North Korean ships are not allowed to dock at Chinese ports and China has blocked some trade with Pyongyang, including the procurement of coal, the backbone of trade between the two countries. So there is an easing, but it is very difficult to imagine a total detachment. It would mean that China decides to take on a very big problem in the region, with various risks. Let us not forget that an imploded Korea would mean finding a place for its nuclear arsenal and prosecuting its entire political class.

Plus the risk of refugees?

It is true that in times of heightened tension, China has amassed troops on the North Korean border. But the more I consult with demographers and analysts of war migration, the more I believe that the situation could also not degenerate that way. The demographers say that in case of conflict, it is not really true that there may be a population drain. The North Koreans live in their homes. They have — no matter what you might think — their status, their lives there and it is not evident that all these people would decide to flee in case of collapse of the regime.

And then there is the United States. A transition from Obama to Clinton would not change anything, as you explain in your book.

There is a discrepancy in Obama’s position. The U.S. president had a certain approach before the election and took another after the election. He had said he would try to resolve the North Korean issue and failed to do so because of missteps. I believe that the policy of “strategic patience” [as Obama put it] is nothing but a gross error. Korea has been cornered, waiting for a serious military error or change. This is a mistake. Korea has to be engaged. They should have triggered a form of dialogue precisely at the moment when Obama started his second term, because there was a change in the whole Asian region where several countries renewed their political leadership, including South Korea, Taiwan and China. That was the time to try to do something.

Keeping North Korea in isolation did not lead to anything except to promote North Korea’s military apparatus, which is now completely self-sufficient. The testing and the missile launches testify to this: North Korea is not a country damaged by the isolation in which it has been trapped.