North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been elected ruling party general secretary, state media said Monday, taking over the mantle from his late father in a move seen as cementing the role of the Workers’ Party of Korea in the country’s affairs.
Kim was “unanimously” elected to the post to thunderous cheers Sunday, the sixth day of the ongoing party congress, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
The rare congress, just the second in four decades, has seen Kim lay out his plans for the country’s economic, military and diplomatic initiatives over the next five years.
Kim has stuck to a familiar playbook at the congress, which was set to continue Monday, vowing to develop more advanced nuclear weapons and missiles and lambasting the United States as his country’s “principal enemy,” less than two weeks before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
In another possible show of force by the North, Seoul said Monday that it had detected signs of a military parade for the congress late Sunday in Pyongyang. It was unclear whether the parade was a rehearsal and what weapons had been displayed.
The title change for Kim, while largely symbolic, will see him shift from party chairman to general secretary, after a return to the party’s secretariat system — which had been scrapped at the last congress in 2016. Kim Jong Il, the current North Korean leader’s late father, was posthumously named “eternal general secretary” at a conference in 2012.
The return to the secretariat system, and Kim’s appointment to the general secretary post, will mirror the system used by China’s ruling Communist Party. Beijing is Pyongyang’s sole patron and ally, providing it with an economic lifeline and crucial support.
Prior to the party congress, there had been speculation that Kim would take a new military title, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“By emphasizing a party position instead, he is reasserting the importance of the party in state and military affairs,” Easley said. “‘General secretary’ is also (Chinese President) Xi Jinping’s title with the Communist Party of China, so Kim may be signaling closer alignment with Beijing.”
On Sunday, the party also held elections for its Central Committee, a top body that includes the powerful politburo, according to KCNA.
Observers had expected to see Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s influential sister and a top regime official, given a promotion to the body, but her name was not on a list published by state media.
However, Easley said it was important not to read too much into her absence from the group.
“Kim Yo Jong’s path of promotions is not linear,” he said. “She comes in and out of prominence and her title tends not to match her importance.”
As for rumors that Kim’s sister was being groomed to succeed the leader in the event of his untimely demise, Easley said there was little evidence that was the case.
“It doesn’t make sense to talk about a No. 2 in the North Korean system, but having someone else who can speak for the regime with authority gives Kim Jong Un flexibility to step in and increase pressure further or dial it back to avoid unwanted conflict,” Easley said.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Monday that Seoul would remain committed to reviving stalled denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington, reiterating his willingness to meet “anytime, anywhere.”
Kim has appeared less interested in engaging with Moon since talks with the U.S. collapsed over disagreements on what North Korea was willing to give up in exchange for sanctions relief.
The North Korean leader challenged Biden on Friday during the congress, saying that he expected Washington’s “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang to continue regardless of who occupies the White House.
In a speech, he laid out a plan to further upgrade his nuclear arsenal by continuing to develop tactical nuclear weapons, which are smaller and lighter than standard bombs and are designed for the battlefield or limited strikes.
He also said the country would continue to refine its ability to make large warheads, and land and submarine-launched, solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles, while improving his military’s ability to conduct “preemptive” and “retaliatory” strikes on strategic targets as far as 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles) away.
The North has not tested a nuclear bomb or launched a long-range missile since 2017, but experts say the country has continued to build up and refine its arsenal, even after Kim’s three meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Still, Kim has been careful not to alienate Biden ahead of his Jan. 20 inauguration. During his speech Friday to the congress, Kim did “not rule out diplomacy.”
Instead, he said his plans to bolster the country’s nuclear “war deterrent” were intended to gain leverage in dealing with Washington and its allies in order to “drive diplomacy in the right direction and guarantee its success” in achieving “peace” on the Korean Peninsula.
Evans Revere, a former U.S. State Department official with extensive experience in negotiations with the North, noted that some experts had believed Kim — whose nation is in difficulty, and perhaps dire economic straits — would signal a willingness to engage positively with the United States as a means of bringing about sanctions-easing.
“Instead, he is moving to strengthen his negotiating position with Washington by underscoring for the new U.S. president how determined and dangerous he can be,” Revere said.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.