10th Congress of Kimilsungist–Kimjongilist Youth League

10th Congress of Kimilsungist–Kimjongilist Youth League

The name has changed, but has the direction remained?

05/2021  | Reading time: 12 minutes

Domestic issues have been a priority for Kim Jong-un lately. Last year, a total of twenty-two high-profile party events in North Korea were held, while only eleven in the previous seven years. The most recent major event was the 10th Congress of Kimilsungist–Kimjongilist Youth League, where the participants voted on some important decisions. Unanimously, of course.

The first significant event of 2021 was the weeklong 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in January. Although this forum should be held every five years according to the party’s rules, it was not organised for thirty-six years after the sixth time in 1980. The reasons for this can be explained mainly by the domestic and international events of the coming years. The collapse of the Eastern bloc in the early 1990s, the unprecedented famine in the country in the same decade, and the global economic crisis in 2008 are just a few examples of the myriad problems that further delayed the party congress. At this year’s event, as usual, those present adopted the next five-year plan. The most important points were increasing self-sufficiency—the main component of the official North Korean state ideology known as Juche—and developing nuclear capabilities. Efforts to significantly raise living standards could be thwarted, however, because the forum did not address the country’s international relations. A highlight of the congress was the appointment of Kim Jong-un as secretary general. This was a surprising move compared to previous decades, as titles ever held by members of the Kim Dynasty were not redistributed after their deaths. This was partly because North Korean public discourse typically refers to politicians by their titles and not their names. Interestingly, the congress was officially “attended” by the long-deceased Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. They also received a diploma, as former leaders, confirming their participation in the ceremony that preceded the event.

The following important event of 2021 was the 6th Conference of Cell Secretaries of Workers’ Party of Korea in the first half of April. In North Korea, the smallest organisational units of the party are the so-called cells, which consist of a minimum of five and a maximum of thirty members. At this event, Kim Jong-un mentioned the so-called Arduous March in connection with the tasks ahead, referring to the famine of the 1990s in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Much of the international media interpreted this as an indication that another major famine was to be expected in the country shortly. However, 38north.org pointed out that this conclusion may not be entirely accurate. The website, which deals specifically with North Korea, analysed not only the official English translation but also the original Korean text. They concluded that the first man in the country may have been aiming much more at a “very hard” or “extremely difficult” situation in the said speech. Although the economic situation in the DPRK is currently dire, it does not even come close to the low point of the 1990s, when an estimated 300,000 to 3,000,000 people lost their lives due to rampant famine in the country.

It was inevitable to summarise the most important events that happened this year before the 10th Congress of the Kimilsungist–Kimjongilist Youth League (KKYL), since they were repeatedly mentioned at the conference of the youth organisation. The KKYL has about five million members between the ages of 14 and 30. In the DPRK, every youth who has reached the age of 14 should join the organisation, where, after some symbolic formalities, everyone is automatically admitted. According to the rules of the organisation, the national congress of the KKYL should also be officially held every five years. However, twenty years had passed after the eighth congress when the ninth congress was held in 2016. As for high-profile party events, there is a clear tendency to return to regularity starting this year, in line with the tradition of the former Soviet and current Chinese communist parties.

Kim Jong-un is aware that the country has no future without young people, so he has always paid close attention to the youth organisation. Although he did not personally attend the congress this year, probably for fear of the coronavirus, he appeared at an outdoor session for taking a group photo. He outlined his thoughts and expectations in a lengthy letter to those attending the event.

A surprising development at this year’s KKYL Congress was the removal of Kim Il-sung’s name from the league’s name after twenty-five years. The new name became Socialist Patriotic Youth League (SPYL). Until five years ago, the name of the biggest youth organisation in North Korea was Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League. Then, omitting the adjective “socialist,” the name of Kim Jong-il, the son of the founder of the state—the second leader of the country in chronological order—was added to the organisation’s name. At the time, this was explained mainly by the need to further strengthen the ubiquitous cult of personality. Of course, the current name change to North Korea could only have been initiated by one person; anyone else would have been sent to at least a labour camp for such an idea. In his letter, Kim Jong-un praised his own decision and stated that the new name reflected the nature and current tasks of the youth movement. He pointed out, however, that changing the word did not mean that the organisation’s ultimate goal was not Kimilsungism–Kimjongilism. Socialism and patriotism symbolise the immortal revolutionary ideology and achievements of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. From such a change of name it can be concluded that, from now on, the emphasis will be on socialist ideological education and strengthening unconditional love for the motherland.

In the letter to the participants of the congress, Kim Jong-un states that significant changes are to be expected for the party in the next five years. He claims that at the cost of more and more “gigantic struggles,” North Korea will be built within about fifteen years into a “powerful and prosperous socialist country in which all the people enjoy happiness.” This statement underscores the obvious fact that this goal has not been achieved to date. Yet the ubiquitous propaganda keeps telling us that the DPRK is a paradise for the working class—in the present, not the future.

The letter then goes into detail about the deviations of the youth. The main task of the SPYL is to educate its members to firmly believe in socialism. According to Kim Jong-un, the biggest problem is that today’s youth were born and raised in a time when the country had great difficulties. The youth of today have not had the opportunity to experience the real benefits of North Korean socialism, but what is worse is that some of them “have a misguided understanding of it.” The words, the actions, the hairstyles, and the clothing of the young people are all indicative of their thoughts. He notes that “at present the dangerous poison that blemishes the original features of socialism is the anti-socialist and non-socialist practices.” In the struggle against these practices, they “cannot yield even an inch.”

To counter the threat to the “purity” of North Korean socialism, a law was passed in the DPRK last December that severely punishes the possession of videos from South Korea. This is to prevent the intrusion of a foreign culture that influences socialist ideology. Stressing the importance of the “anti-reactionary thought law,” Kim Jong-un stated at the 6th Conference of Cell Secretaries of WPK that “we must view the problem of youth culture as a matter of the Party and the revolution and as a matter of life and death for the country and its people.” It is probably also a consequence of this statement that the authorities have since taken this matter much more seriously. According to official reports from North Korea, in May alone, thousands submitted their illegally held media, which primarily includes South Korean movies, dramas, and K-pop. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the hermetic closure of the borders provided an excellent opportunity for the North Korean leadership to suppress as much as possible the foreign media that had already entered the country. However, to escape the extremely harsh penalties, North Korean citizens circumvented the system by paying bribes to the authorities.

Kim’s criticism concerning the structure and operation of the youth organisation is also noteworthy. According to the country leader, many organisational units hold their meetings irregularly and also give trivial tasks to their members. He also expressed his displeasure that the SPYL excludes youths involved in illegal and criminal activities from its membership with immediate effect, thus removing them from the association’s control. The same applies to youth who do not apply for membership in the youth organisation for any reason. In order to extend maximum ideological control to all youth, regular visits to revolutionary memorials have to be part of education. Kim Jong-un also expressed great concern about the steady decline in the membership of youth league. He did not mention, of course, that this was mainly due to the decline in the birth rate of North Korea. Even though the demographic trend in South Korea is much less favourable, population decline causes more and more problems in the northern part of the peninsula as well. In terms of association work, the party leader suggested that the irrational organisational anomalies that exist, especially in the countryside, should be eliminated as soon as possible and the basic units should be reorganised.

Visit of a youth group at the Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang
Source: Photo of the author

The news of the North Korean state television about the SPYL congress is very informative, detailing how this particular group photo was taken. After thousands of attendees took their seats in a specially arranged grandstand, the huge car of the country’s number one leader rolled onto the scene. Then everyone began to greet Kim with loud cheers. The smiling politician joyfully waved back to the cheering crowd. The state’s official report stressed that this was certainly a very memorable moment for the participants, as they got to see their country’s most prestigious figure up close. However, in the group photo, both the participants and the party leaders, including Kim Jong-un, shrank to an unrecognisable size. Only the figures in the huge paintings, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, are recognisable in the picture—the very ones whose names have just been removed from the official name of the youth organisation. The photo was taken in front of the mausoleum called Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang, considered one of the holiest sites in North Korea and where the embalmed bodies of the country’s two former leaders rest. It is no coincidence that even cars are only allowed to drive on the boulevard in front of the building on “tiptoe” at a speed of only 30 km/h.