DENVER – By all accounts, the much-anticipated Seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea was a non-event. If the first such meeting of North Korea’s highest organ in more than 35 years had any impact at all, it was to dash any hopes that the country’s irascible leader, Kim Jong-un, would turn his attention to economic reform.
In the time Kim spent avoiding discussing North Korea’s shambolic economy, he made it abundantly clear that the country’s real pride is its nuclear program. Despite past pledges to abandon nuclear-weapons development, the government has lately been pursuing new research, evidently in the hope of proclaiming the achievement of some new technological milestone.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, most of the world has jumped on the free-market bandwagon. But North Korea has held fast to its isolation. Its cult-like regime has encouraged a hyper-nationalist worldview, according to which any systematic cooperation with another country – much less the international community at large – is considered a threat to North Korea’s sovereignty. And, as the latest party congress made clear, this will not change anytime soon.
Nowadays, however, North Korea is beginning to look less like an outlier than a forerunner in a broader trend toward nationalism, autarky, and authoritarianism. Global trends, as measured by Freedom House and other nongovernmental authorities, include a surge in despotic regimes not seen since the first half of the twentieth century.