For the first time in more than 35 years, North Korea is preparing to hold a full Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK). Originally intended to be a regular occurrence for the WPK, party congresses convened only sporadically until 1980, when Kim Jong Il was named as Kim Il Sung's successor. In the years since, though the WPK has officially remained at the center of the North Korean political system, party congresses have lost their central role in the political cycle. Scheduled to begin May 6, the 2016 congress marks the revival of a more public political style in the country, playing on the formalism of party structure and events.
Meanwhile, a series of missile tests has been underway in the country. In recent weeks, Pyongyang has conducted several tests of both the Musudan road-mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile and a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Although these systems are critical to a viable nuclear weapons program, international observers consider the tests to have been partial successes at best. In some ways, this is not unexpected. Compared with other countries, North Korea carries out very few tests of its missile systems. And even in the best-funded programs, numerous failures pave the road to success. On the other hand, the tests may have been accelerated to coincide with the party congress, thereby increasing the risk of failure.
But aside from the party congress, a deeper reason underlies Pyongyang's accelerated missile testing. North Korea is nearing the moment when it can demonstrate each component of a functional nuclear weapons system. As Pyongyang approaches a viable nuclear weapon and delivery system, the pressure is rising for the United States and other countries to pre-empt it. Consequently, the final moments of North Korea's transition from a working program to a demonstrated system are the most dangerous, providing a last chance to stop the country from becoming a nuclear weapons state. And though success in these final stages is not guaranteed, Pyongyang is striving to achieve technology and capabilities that many other countries attained decades ago. Thus, it would take a political decision, rather than a technological struggle, to delay or end North Korea's nuclear ambitions.