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N. Korea’s new power structure takes shape

Publication Date : 26-04-2012


Kim Jong-un to capitalise on party leadership to rule country


For North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, this month was the toughest, yet most rewarding on his path to power.

The fledgling leader officially took the helm of the Workers’ Party and the National Defence Commission and filled key party, state and military posts with loyalists.

To many, his rise to power proceeded surprisingly well and speedily. It was thanks to the legal and institutional groundwork that his father Kim Jong-il laid for the young, untested son in his late 20s, thrown into politics after only a few years of grooming.

After suffering a stroke in 2008, the elder Kim sought to systemise the governing structure, focusing on normalising the party’s role in controlling state affairs.

Experts say he believed that his young son could effectively gain a firm grip on power through the party, the highest governing authority in the communist state.

The iron-fisted former leader had called all the shots based on his coercive, charismatic persona and did not need to rely much on the party. It was the primary reason why the party had not functioned properly with many key posts left vacant for years after the death or purge of senior members, analysts say.

“Even though the party had not sufficient rules on governance and lacked the staff, Kim effectively ruled his country with a formidable, unparalleled leadership. So, it did not matter for him whether the party’s senior posts were left empty or not,” said Chin Hee-gwan, unification professor at Inje University.

Instead, he used the NDC as his principal ruling apparatus as he carried out his “military first” policy, mainly aimed at mobilising troops in massive state projects amid persistent economic travails.

But apparently concerned that his inexperienced son might have difficulty quickly establishing an unrivaled leadership, Kim sought to bequeath to Jong-un a more stable and systematic power structure centering mainly on the ruling party.

“When Kim (senior) sought to hand over his rule, he felt the need to improve it for his son Jong-un,” Chin said.

As a first step, he gave the heir apparent the newly created post of vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission during the party representatives’ conference in 2010.

During the latest conference on April 11, the junior Kim was crowned with the post of the party’s “first secretary”, which doubles as the CMC chairman. His father remains the “eternal general secretary”.

Two days later at the annual session of the North’s rubber-stamp legislature, Jong-un became the “first chairman” of the NDC. His father was designated as the “eternal NDC chairman”.

After the two political gatherings, Jong-un, who had already gained the wartime military title of the supreme commander shortly after his father’s death, took control of major military organisations.

They are the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, the General Political Bureau and the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, all of which are now headed by his closest aides.

The Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, the equivalent of Seoul’s Defense Ministry, is headed by Vice Marshal Kim Jong-gak, a member of the party’s politburo. Vice marshal is “chasu” in Korean, and a rank higher than a four-star general.

The General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, an equivalent of Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, is led by Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, dubbed Kim Jong-un’s military tutor.

Choe Ryong-hae, a longtime aide to the Kim dynasty, has been picked to lead the General Political Bureau.

He is the first civilian in decades to lead the powerful military organ under the direct control of the party. The bureau leads the crucial personnel management of other military bodies such as the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces.

Choe was recently made an army vice marshal. He rose up the political pecking order on the back of his father’s close ties with the Kim dynasty. His father Choe Hyon was a key member of the partisan guerrilla campaign against the Japanese colonialists in the 1930s, which was led by the communist state’s national founder Kim Il-sung.

Becoming one of the five members of the decision-making politburo presidium of the party and the vice chairman of the party’s CMC, he is now seen as one of the most powerful figures in the North.

The rise of Choe in the military signals that civilian elites such as Kim Kyong-hui, younger sister of Kim Jong-il, and her husband Jang Song-thaek, will flex considerable muscle in the management of field military units, experts noted.

Kim Kyong-hui is now the party’s secretary while Jang is the vice NDC chairman. Both are four-star generals without military field experience.

While Choe came to the forefront of the regime in Pyongyang, experts believe that Kim Kyong-hui and Jang may continue to wield considerable power behind the scenes while advising Jong-un.

Some say that they might have elevated the status of some high-profile figures outside the Kim family such as Choe to avoid criticism that could flare up should there be any policy flip-flops.

Despite renewed emphasis on the party’s role in state governance, the NDC is expected to remain a powerful organ that executes military-related and other key directives from the ruling party.

With the power succession process complete, Kim Jong-un now faces a set of challenges to maintain power, enhance economic conditions through normalising ties with South Korea, the US and other nations, and have people coalesce around him.

There has still been a flurry of speculation over how Kim Jong-un is holding up as a leader of the reclusive state. The prevailing theory appears to be that he makes final state decisions after consulting his aides.

Experts concurred that for the time being, it is unlikely there will be any big changes in the North given that interested parties, including Kim’s inner circle, will want to maintain the status quo.


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