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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The Supreme People’s Assembly Meeting

by and Luke Herman | September 10th, 2012 | 07:00 am
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SPA Sessions, 1948-2012

Session, date

Sessions

Sessions/year Average length (days)
1st SPA, (9/2/1948 – 9/17/1958)

13

1.18

4.38

2nd SPA, (9/18/1957 – 10/21/1962)

11

2.2

3.09

3rd SPA, (10/22/1962 – 12/13/1967)

7

1.4

3.14

4th SPA, (12/14/1967 – 12/14/1972)

6

1.2

3

5th SPA, (12/25/1972 – 12/14/1977)

7

1

4.28

6th SPA, (12/15/1977 – 4/4/1982)

5

1

3

7th SPA, (4/5/1982 – 12/28/1986)

7

1.75

3.14

8th SPA, (12/29/1986 – 5/23/1990)

5

1.25

2.2

9th SPA, (5/24/1990 – 7/8/1994**)

6

1.5

3

Inter-regnum, 7/8/1994-7/26/1998

No SPA sessions convened

-

-

10th SPA, (7/26/1998 – 8/2/2003)

5

1

1.8

11th SPA, (8/3/2003 – 3/7/2009)

6

1

1

12th SPA, (3/8/2009 – 4/13/2012)

5

.6

1

Note: The SPA is supposed to be elected every five years, which means that the 9th SPA should have ended in May 1995; however, we mark its end with the death of Kim Il Sung as no sessions of the 9th SPA were held after his death and the 10th SPA elections were delayed.)

 

A short statement from the KCNA last week announced that “the 6th session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly will convene in Pyongyang on the 25th.” The Invisible College of North Korea Watchers immediately went into overdrive, speculating on why the leadership would call an unusual—but not unprecedented–second session for this year. Before turning to that issue, its worthwhile backing up and taking a look at the nature and history of the SPA, summarized in the table above.

As with China’s National People’s Congress and the Soviet Union’s Supreme Soviet, the Supreme People’s Assembly is nominally an elected legislative body and the formal source of state power. In line with the concept of democratic centralism, however, the SPA is effectively appointed. The party nominates a single slate of candidates that is then elected with 99 percent unanimity. The North Koreans take their voting seriously; such results are designed to demonstrate the overwhelming strength of the party.

As with the party congress, the legislative significance of the full SPA—miniscule to begin with—underwent a secular decline as Kim Il Sung consolidated power. As can be seen above, early sessions of the SPA would last a few days at least and even include debate. Following the death of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il suspended meetings of the SPA altogether. When meetings resumed, both their duration and frequency continued to fall until they met less than once a year and for no more than a day.

But that does not mean that the SPA meetings are insignificant. Regular SPA sessions convene in April to pass decisions taken by the leadership into law, including the budget and personnel decisions, such as the staffing of the cabinet and nominally state bodies such as the National Defense Commission. But both regular and irregular meetings have also been used to signal policy, institutional and even constitutional changes, including those connected with the two successions in 1990-93 and now 2010 to the present. The SPA is in effect a mechanism for communicating the overall policy direction to the government, party and population as a whole.

Given that no one really knows anything about what will transpire later in the month, the best we can do is outline the possibilities (drawing on conversations organized by the indefatigable Chris Nelson).

  • Constitutional amendments. We have absolutely no evidence that this may be in the works, but it is has to be put on the menu as an outside possibility. The North Korean constitution was adopted in 1948 and then revised in 1972, 1992 (setting the stage for the first transition), and 1998 (consolidating that transition). During the passage of power from Kim II to Kim III, the constitution was further amended in both 2009 and at the first session of the SPA in April of this year (We commented at length on this meeting). If the regime really wanted to signal a change in course, it could enshrine some of the new measures in a constitutional revision, but given the frequency of recent tinkering we put this as an outside possibility.
  • Institutional changes. The constitutional changes that set the stage for Kim Jong Un’s assumption of power also overlapped with a speech to the party leadership that suggested an increasing role for the cabinet in policy implementation. Recent reporting by the Voice of America cites unnamed intelligence analysts claiming “a process is underway to strip North Korea’s military of its control over major economic policies and place them under the Cabinet.” The SPA could attempt to signal such changes.
  •  Personnel changes. We commented at length on recent personnel changes, and particularly the purge of Ri Yong Ho. SPAs have been used to announce major personnel changes. Yonsei’s John Delury pointed out to us that these might include: filling Ri Yong Ho’s vacant spot on the National Defense Commission; replacing Premier Choe Yong Rim, who was promoted at the 2nd annual session of SPA in 2010 and thus reflects the late Kim Jong Il team; or bringing in new faces in conjunction with reform announcements.
  • Policy changes. Most speculation, however, centers on the non-mutually exclusive possibility of new reform legislation. As we have emphasized repeatedly, the evidence with respect to the reforms remains thin, consisting of three disconnected bits: reforms of investment legislation at the very end of the Kim Jong Il era; several speeches Kim Jong Un has made that remain highly contradictory; and reports of pilot reforms in the agricultural sector. Despite the highly centralized nature of the North Korean system and the tremendous discretion exercised by the leadership, any change in policy would still have to be codified in laws and directives; indeed, for a system in which the rule of law is so weak, North Korea is surprisingly legalistic. Our bet is that such legal measures are likely to be on offer, perhaps multiple bills covering differing elements of economic policy.

For other coverage, Choe Song-hun has a particularly good overview at The New York Times that is worth reading closely.