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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

“Only Weirdos Take Interest in Legislative Session”

by | April 22nd, 2014 | 07:03 am

North Korea has recently held a series of high-level political meetings: an “enlarged” meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC, March 17), a Politburo meeting (April 8), which in turn preceded the first session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (April 9) following SPA elections a month before. Drawing on informants inside the country, DailyNK ran a short story on public reaction to the SPA session entitled “Only Weirdos Take Interest in Legislative Session.” As true as that may be–and both inside and outside the country–we feel obligated to briefly review and synthesize reporting on recent political developments. Two conclusions are that turnover favoring Kim Jong Un-era appointees continues, including through targeted and selected purges, and that the regime’s interest expressed interest in economic reconstruction continues.

Michael Madden has a brief overview of the SPA elections at 38North. Madden concludes that the anticipated purge of Jang associates did not materialize, with greater continuity among senior candidates than expected. However he and other observers noted the generational shift underway. Madden notes that fully 55% of the newly-elected delegates are new. Deputies over 60 now account for just under 30% of the SPA while those aged 40-59 now account for just over two-thirds of it. (Rudy Frank also offers his analysis of the SPA at 38North as well).

The SPA is the venue for announcements of policy and personnel changes; it endorses initiatives and elects—or more accurately ratifies—personnel lists for the National Defense Commission, the SPA Presidium and SPA committees, and the Cabinet. The underlying decisions on these issues are taken at—or similarly announced at—the preceding Politburo meeting (the full lists of those elected were posted in a series of articles at the KCNA website on April 9).

There were no major policy announcements so the analysis of the SPA has focused on the organizational and personnel issues. Reporting on the Politburo meeting is always opaque, and this year was no exception. But the KCNA reports noted that the top party body discussed “the issue of reinforcing the organization so as to increase the leadership role and function of the Party” and an intriguing “proposal for forming a state leadership body”; KCNA reporting on the SPA meeting reported–also without explanation–that this “State Guidance Organ” was elected.

Both of these organizational issues are long-standing points of controversy among North Korea watchers. Does it make sense to think of recent conflicts within the regime as engaging an institutionalized party-military cleavage? I have been skeptical, given the ongoing institutional reliance of the regime on the military and security apparatus; for a recent analysis that suggests how these alliances cut across party and military lines, see the recent KINU brief by Park Hyeon-jeong. But the issue of the “State Guidance Organ” received virtually no coverage that I could see, and might revive the debate about “cabinet responsibility” that we covered after the SPA meetings in 2012.

The SPA session saw a number of personnel changes, but less dramatic in nature than the changes during Kim Jong Un’s first two years in office.

The NDC is the most elite body with only nine members: chairman Kim Jong Un, three vice-chairmen (Choe Ryong Hae, Ri Yong Mu and O Kuk Ryol) and five regular members (Jang Jong Nam, Pak To Chun, Kim Won Hong, Choe Pu Il and Jo Chun Ryong). The most significant change is the ascent of Choe Ryong Hae to the NDC at the vice-chairman rank, replacing Kim Yong Chun. Choe Ryong Hae was written off as recently as two months ago and was even rumored to be under arrest. But promotion to the NDC would seem to reaffirm his number two position within the hierarchy, as he continues to hold the crucial position as Director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA and Vice-Chairman of the CMC, crucial links in the party’s control over the military.

The rest of the NDC lineup follows the pattern of quite substantial turnover in this body during the late Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un eras. Minister of the People’s Armed Forces Jang Jong Nam and Jo Chun Ryong were newly elected to the NDC while Ju Kyu Chang, Kim Kyok Sik and Paek Se Bong seem to have lost their positions. Jo Chun Ryong is of some interest because of the belief that he has worked in the country’s missile command and that he replaced Paek Se Bon as head of the Second Economic Committee that oversees the military-industrial complex.  The other two incumbent vice-chairmen and Choe Pu Il, Kim Won Hong and Pak To Chun retained their membership; Kim Won Hong heads the Ministry of State Security and Choe Pu Il heads the Ministry of People’s Security.

This body continues to reflect the military-security-industrial complex. Recent purges within these institutions do not necessarily change the regime’s overall reliance on these institutions. The most dramatic news in this regard centers on the purge of O Song Hon. A deputy minister at the Ministry of People’s Security, he purportedly managed a bureau in the ministry as a personal security service tied to Jang Song Thaek. Eleven of O’s associates were purged, the office closed, and O reportedly executed by flamethrower.

Kim Yong Nam maintained his longstanding role as Chairman of the Presidium of the SPA. Although there were a number of personnel changes in the body with the addition of six new members and the rotation of three members off of the body, the top leadership remained intact.

Pak Pong Ju stayed on as Premier and head of the Cabinet where the most surprising change was replacement of Pak Ui Chun as Foreign Minister by Ri Su Yong, also rumored purged and even executed as an associate of Jang Song Thaek’s. In addition to Ri’s long experience in Europe—including as minder of Kim Jong Un while he and his sister were studying in Switzerland–he also served as chairman of the Joint Venture Investment Committee.

His appointment might be seen as an indicator of the regime’s renewed emphasis on attracting foreign direct investment. No fewer than five economic ministries saw turnover–Coal, Metallurgy, Mining, Forestry and Commerce–but we certainly do not have adequate intelligence on the new personnel to make judgments of whether their appointments signal any shift in policy. At least one of these new appointments—at Commerce—was interpreted as a Jang-related reshuffle. Nonetheless, coal and mining are core sectors for foreign investment and policy toward those sectors was noted in the Jang indictment.

The Ministry of Light Industry, long headed by Kim Jong Un’s aunt and Jong Song Thaek’s wife Kim Kyong Hui, was either abolished altogether or simply was not mentioned in the list of ministerial appointments. This is probably Kim Kyong Hui’s exit. In classic Soviet fashion, recent reports have suggested that Kim has been edited out of propaganda films.

But familial elements of the regime have by no means been eradicated. Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong—who also studied in Switzerland–made her first appearance as a “senior official” at the time of the SPA elections. Earlier, Michael Madden picked up that she may have been working as an aide-de-camp for the Young Marshal; one speculation is that she may play a role in managing funds for the court economy now that Jang and Kim Kyong Hui have passed from the scene.  Plus ca change…