A Spectacular Opportunity to Engage Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un presides over a consultative meeting with officials about state security and foreign affairs in this picture released by North Korea's official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang, North Korea, on January 27, 2013. The author writes that although Kim looks secure from challenge, his promiscuous resort to execution suggests he feels otherwise. And there has been a raft of defections. KCNA/via reuters

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

America's political silly season will rush toward a close with the November presidential election. Both party conventions are likely to be lively.

But these spectacles will fall short of the pageantry expected at next month's Communist Party congress in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). For the first time in 36 years, before current leader Kim Jong Un was born, the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) is gathering.

We still don't know the exact date that delegates will convene. But North Koreans only just finished a 70-day campaign to prepare for the grand event. In the DPRK, appearances are everything.

The masses reportedly are marching as one behind the "Young Marshal." The regime says the campaign is to "defend the leadership authority" of the KWP and resist the "U.S. imperialists."

At least Kim Jong Un has emphasized economic development; his father, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, pushed a "military-first" policy.

The question for the U.S. is "Why the congress?" It is only the seventh in the DPRK's 68-year history.

At the last one, "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung inaugurated a system of monarchical communism when he announced that his son would succeed him. The more than 3,000 delegates also affirmed Kim's philosophy of "Juche," or self-reliance.

In succeeding years, the party seemed to lose relevance. Kim instituted the rule of one. After Kim Jong Il took over, he shifted power toward the military and away from the KWP. A party congress would have been almost superfluous.

No longer, however. Since Kim Jong Un took over after his father's death in December 2011, Kim fils has been reshaping Pyongyang's power structure. He turfed out most of the top officials appointed by and loyal to his father and ruthlessly eliminated any challenge to his power. Moreover, Kim moved decision-making back to the KWP.

The party congress will emphatically re-establish the authority of the party, with Kim at the helm. The gathering also will solidify the rise of Kim's new generation of officials.

Although he looks secure from challenge, his promiscuous resort to execution suggests he feels otherwise. Indeed, this month his regime suffered embarrassment from a raft of defections.

Kim may use the congress to ratify his more reformist economic policies. The younger Kim appears committed to economic development, whether to improve the lot of his people or strengthen the nation that he rules.

The changes are dramatic enough—a proliferation of markets—as to require a more formal framework. Ruediger Frank of the University of Vienna observed: "All major reforms of state socialism—be it in China under Deng Xiaoping, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev or Vietnam under the slogan of doi moi—have been announced at such regular party congresses or related events."

A more robust and systematic program of economic reform is the best hope for the North to escape from immiserating poverty. Economic reform also creates the possibility of political liberalization.

China has demonstrated that moving toward markets does not automatically deliver democracy. But the People's Republic of China today is far freer in every way than during the rule of Mao Zedong. This may be why Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, resisted Chinese-style economic reforms.

Since nothing else yet has worked, Washington should greet the congress by expressing a willingness to talk to Pyongyang, and not only about nuclear weapons, which almost certainly is a dead end with the Kim dynasty.

With war the worst of all possibilities and sanctions able to hurt but not transform, the U.S. needs to explore other options.

America's political conventions will be consequential since they will determine who takes over the helm in Washington. But the DPRK's political meet-up will offer the ultimate in political choreography.

It also could ratify a change of direction in Pyongyang. As I pointed out in Forbes: "The U.S. should encourage such a possibility. While the chance of success might be small, that would be better than continuing today's dead-end approach."

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and as editor of the political magazine Inquiry.