North Korea has concluded one of its biggest leadership shakeups in years. While understanding leadership dynamics in Pyongyang is akin to reading tea leaves, it is clear that the shuffle has consolidated the power and status of Kim Jong Un, already the country’s supreme leader. As ever, all decisions are made by him and dealing with Kim is the only way to deal with North Korea on the state-to-state, or diplomatic, level. This has implications for Japanese diplomacy: Kim is the only interlocutor that matters and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will have to deal with him directly if there is to be any progress in the bilateral relationship.
Last week, the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, approved the selection of Choe Ryong Hae as president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Choe replaced Kim Yong Nam, 91, who had served in that position since it was created in 1998. The president is the de facto head of state, who meets foreign guests and convenes sessions of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Choe was also elected first vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission, a new post, which effectively establishes him as the second-ranking official in the government hierarchy. North Korea watchers have charted Choe’s rise since Kim took power in 2011, and Choe is thought to be one of Kim’s confidantes. At one point in 2015, however, he was reported to have fallen from grace and was thought to have been sent to the countryside for re-education, but he has apparently been rehabilitated — a reminder that there are second chances even in Kim’s leadership.
In addition, Kim Jae Ryong, who served as a party leader in Jagang Province, was named premier, replacing Pak Pong Ju, who had been premier since 2013. Little is known about Kim, but Pak implemented a reform program that created more room for market forces. He was promoted to vice chairman of the ruling party, so it is likely that his reforms will continue.
Kim Jae Ryong is taking a difficult job and pressure to succeed is high. Kim Jong Un is focused on fixing North Korea’s economy and he has made improvement in the lives of ordinary North Koreans a benchmark of his administration. He called on officials of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea to “vigorously advance socialist construction” based on North Korea’s own “efforts, technology and resources.” Kim has repeatedly stressed the need to be “self reliant” as a way of defeating “the hostile forces who go with bloodshot eyes miscalculating that sanctions can bring the DPRK [North Korea] to its knees.” Kim has also made public visits in recent weeks to economy-related projects which also underscores the importance he attaches to reform and progress.
Significantly, despite the failure of the Hanoi summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, key figures in those negotiations were promoted. Kim Yong Chol, a former intelligence head who met Trump several times before the summit, retained his position on the State Affairs Commission, and Choe Son Hui, the first vice minister of foreign affairs who has a reputation as the “iron lady” among negotiators, was named to the State Affairs Commission for the first time.
Kim Jong Un retained his formal title as chairman of the State Affairs Commission, which is the formal mechanism by which he rules North Korea, a post he first assumed in 2016. The day before the Supreme People’s Assembly meeting, he chaired a plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, sitting alone on the dais rather than in the company of other top officials, another sign of his unique status.
Kim is also now referred to as “supreme representative of all the Korean people,” a title approved in February but which had not been previously used. That honorific explains why Kim did not run for a seat in Supreme People’s Assembly elections last month — elected officials represent districts, while Kim represents “all the Korean people.” If that phrase is to be taken literally, then it is important that the rest of the world understand whether this represents a new phase in the long-held ambition to reunify the Korean Peninsula under Pyongyang.
Kim’s consolidation of power has important implications for Japan. It means that Tokyo, if it wishes to engineer a breakthrough in relations with Pyongyang, must emulate the governments in Seoul and Washington and take the bold step to pursue leader-level contact. Bold and decisive measures are demanded; cautious and traditional diplomacy is unlikely to succeed. Kim’s focus on economic policy makes clear where Japan must concentrate its own efforts and overtures.
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