By Michael Madden
05 April 2013
Kim Jong Un’s efforts to consolidate power continue 15 months after formally assuming the supreme leadership of North Korea. Evidence of his personal stamp can be seen in a series of senior personnel appointments made at the recent plenary session of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Central Committee held on March 31, 2013, and the 7th session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the country’s unicameral legislature, on April 1. I. KWP Central Committee Meeting The KWP plenary session, announced by the Political Bureau five days ahead of its convocation, was held on March 31, 2013. This meeting provided Kim Jong Un an opportunity for personnel housekeeping and was the first shuffle of the Central Committee’s membership since the 3rd Party Conference in September 2010. Under Kim’s direction, personnel changes were made to the Political Bureau, the Central Committee and the Central Committee Departments. Political Bureau The first order of business was to elect members of the Political Bureau, the party’s leading collective organization, which directs political, policy and personnel decisions. Political Bureau members are the upper echelon of the North’s political and security elite. Shifts made during the March 31 meeting elevated an official viewed as a reformer while downgrading members of the military faction. Based on the list of Political Bureau members and alternates released after the 4th Party Conference in April 2012, the number of full Political Bureau members has been reduced from 19 in 2012 to 17 in March 2013. After the March 31 meeting, full Political Bureau members now include five from the military/security faction and 12 from the party/government faction. Three key generals were appointed as alternate members, de-emphasizing the role of the military without marginalizing it completely since their predecessors were full members. The Reformer: Pak Pong Ju Pak Pong Ju was elected to the Political Bureau replacing Vice Marshal Kim Jong Gak, a member of the military faction. Pak was the Premier (Prime Minister) from September 2003 to April 2007. Pyongyang watchers view him as a major reformer in the DPRK’s political and economic life, particularly since he presided over the implementation of a number of modifications to the country’s economic policies as Premier. In addition, Pak has close political ties to Kim Jong Un’s uncle and aunt—Jang Song Thaek and his wife, Kim Kyong Hui, sister to the late Kim Jong Il. The Alternates: Gen. Kim Kyok Sik, Gen. Hyon Yong Chol and Gen. Choe Pu Il Gen. Kim Kyok Sik, who has served as the defense minister since November 2012, was elected an alternate, or candidate member, of the Political Bureau. It is worth noting that the previous two defense ministers served as full members of the Political Bureau. Prior to being minister, Kim was commander of a forward-deployed unit on the controversial inter-Korean maritime boundary—the Northern Limit Line—and was in charge of the units that may have launched the attack on the ROK naval corvette Cheonan and fired artillery shells on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. He also served as military advisor to Kim Jong Il and Chief of the KPA General Staff from 2007 to 2009. Despite an illustrious military career, Kim was denied full membership to the Political Bureau in favor of government and party officials. Gen. Hyon Yong Chol, the Chief of the KPA General Staff, was also elected as an alternate member of the Political Bureau in contrast to his predecessor, Ri Yong Ho, who was a full member of the Political Bureau and its standing committee, the Presidium. Hyon received his fourth star as a KPA general in September 2010 in the batch of promotions that elevated Kim Jong Un to a general, indicating a close political tie between Hyong and the supreme leader. Like Hyon, Choe Pu Il was elevated to four-star general (though later reduced in rank) in September 2010 and has both political and personal ties to Kim Jong Un. A member of the KWP Central Military Commission, he was also elected an alternate member of the Political Bureau at the March meeting, replacing Gen. Ri Myong Su. Party Central Committee Departments Central Committee Departments formulate and implement the KWP’s political, economic, internal security and military policies; they make or regulate personnel appointments within the party, government and military; they also regulate the DPRK’s press, media and cultural institutions. According to state media, at the March 31 Central Committee meeting, “upon authorization of Kim Jong Un, two department directors were replaced.” One change represents a shift in focus to the DPRK’s commercial economic development. The other creates a new force to shape the public image of the DPRK more in line with the new supreme leader. Commerce: Paek Kye Ryong Paek Kye Ryong, previously party chief secretary in Kangwon Province, was appointed to replace Pak Pong Ju as Director of the KWP Light Industry Department. The Light Industry Department is in charge of a network of factories, owned either directly by the party or by Cabinet Ministries, which produce food, clothing and consumer goods. Paek’s previous position was in a province bordering the South Korea; he now directs the main commercial output of the DPRK. Image Maker: Yun U Chol Yun U Chol was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the KWP’s daily newspaper, Rodong Sinmun. Yun has long been a fixture in the KWP’s Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD), and his last known position was as deputy director of the Party History Institute. He replaced Kim Ki Ryong, who was appointed editor at the 3rd Party Conference in September 2010. Such a rapid turnover may indicate that Kim Jong Un desires his own appointment for this position, bringing about a new message and image, not one initiated by his late father.
Figure 1. Comparison of the Korean Workers' Party Central Committee in April 2012 and April 2013 further clarity was provided on personnel changes made during the KWP Central Committee meeting. The SPA, among its eight agenda items, also made several significant changes. According to KCNA, “some members of the Cabinet were relieved of their posts,” and their replacements were “appointed at the session.” KCNA did not, however, disclose the names of those Cabinet members. The DPRK Cabinet Premier Pak Pong Ju was appointed Cabinet Premier replacing the 84-year-old Choe Yong Rim, who despite his age, was very active, conducting dozens of site visits to factories, farms and construction projects as well as taking several trips abroad. Because Pak has a reformer’s reputation, his appointment attracted a great deal of external media coverage. Pak was politically resurrected in the summer of 2010 when he was appointed deputy director of the KWP Light Industry Department, and then promoted to director in April 2012. He is likely to be just as publicly active as his predecessor and his appointment could indicate the DPRK has formulated a long range plan for economic improvements. The National Defense Commission Generals Kim Kyok Sik and Choe Pu Il were appointed as members of the National Defense Commission (NDC), the country’s supreme power organization. Gen. Kim is the defense minister, or Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, and was appointed to that post in November 2012. Gen. Choe Pu Il was appointed as the DPRK’s top cop, the Minister of People’s Security, in February 2013. These appointments reflect the continued strengthening of Kim Jong Un’s influence since both are close supporters. Secretary General of the Presidium Hong Son Ok was appointed as the SPA Presidium’s Secretary-General, the first female ever to hold that position. She previously served as the SPA Vice Chairwoman and as the Vice Chairwoman for the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Both jobs allowed Hong frequent contact with foreign delegations and travel abroad. While Secretary-General is a largely ceremonial position, her appointment may point to a new emphasis on women as key players in the DPRK’s relatively male-dominated political culture. Her public profile might compare to the public duties of Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, who has greeted diplomats and other foreigners based in Pyongyang on at least three occasions. Additionally, Hong’s experience with foreign relations may represent a shift toward international openness of a different sort from the past.
Figure 2. The Korean Workers' Party Political Bureau as of April 2013
- The election of a well-known reformer as a full member of the Political Bureau and subseuqnetly as Premier. While Pak Pong Ju’s appointment probably does not mean major policy reforms can be expected in the short-term, it does show that the DPRK intends, over the long term, to modify its economic policies and attempt to expand its foreign trade relationships. In short, Pak can be expected to plant the seeds which will eventually bloom into major policy modifications.
- The appointment of three senior military and internal security officials as alternate, not full members of the Political Bureau as their predecessors were. As a result, the KPA’s role and influence in the affairs of the party and government have been siginficantly reduced. This most likely represents the party’s reassertion of control over the military.
- The appointment of Hong Son Ok, as the first female Secretary-General of the SPA Presidium, which may indicate a new openness on the part of the leadership, and an attempt to transcend the predominant patriarchy of the past.