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The Peninsula

Career Paths to the North Korean Politburo Part 3: Personalism, New Directions and Reading the Tea Leaves

Published September 15, 2021
Category: North Korea

In the last two posts, we have provided data on the share of military personnel in the Politburo and analyzed in more detail the diversity of military backgrounds, some tied to the weapons program, but others linked more clearly to the military-industrial complex, technology and internal security. Here, we consider several intepretations of these developments, starting with a reminder of who is in charge and that military appointments do not necessarily reflect the increasing power of the military in the political apparatus; to the contrary.

One finding to emerge from our consideration of Politburo career paths is that many of the newly promoted Politburo members were virtually unknown to outsiders, including the South Korean Ministry of Unification from which our data and career biographies are drawn. Rather, their meteoric rise appear to stem from their close personal ties with Kim Jong-un, ties which remain to some extent mysterious.

  • Jong Sang-hak, the chairman of the Party Central Auditing Commission and secretary of the WPK Central Committee, was unknown to outsiders before he joined the Politburo. Similarly, Jo Yong-won, even though a member of the Presidium or Politburo Standing Committee, did not hold any more important official positions other than the vice director of Organization and Guidance Department. However, he had been frequently spotted escorting Kim on his guidance tours. Local media outlets even dubbed him as Kim’s shadow. He was appointed as the first Secretary of the WPK, and will even preside over meetings in place of Kim Jong-un. In June 2021, he arguably became the de facto No.2 elite in the country.
  • Kim Jong-gwan was discovered by Kim Jong-un around 2016, before which he served as the head of the General Construction Bureau of the People’s Armed Forces and caught the leader’s eyes by successfully completing several big construction projects, including the Wonsan Kalma International Airport and Yangdok hot spring resort. Despite this limited albeit successful career, he was named the Minister of People’s Armed Forces in 2019, a position which is typically accompanied by Politburo membership.
  • Little was know about Kwon Yong-jin before mid-2020. The first official position he took of which we aware was one of the top three military positions in the country as director of the General Political Bureau in January 2021. According to Yonhap News, Kwon’s position as a lower rank of Colonel General, in contrast to his predecessor- Kim Su-gil’s rank of General, and the unusual exclusion of the director of the General Political Bureau from the Standing Committee of Politburo and State Affairs Commission, indicate how personalistic ties and the leader’s discretion easily can override formal organizational hierarchies.
  • Ho Chol-man, promoted more recently in August 2021, was appointed to direct the party’s Cadres Department in 2019, but was unknown to outsiders before that.

A second indicator of the political power of the leader has been the continuing churn within the Politburo. In the wake of the 8th Party Congress, three more meetings have taken place in which the Politburo has been reshuffled at the margins, in some cases replacing people who had only recently been appointed. Economic themes—and blame shifting—have been front and center, although some appointments may reflect a shifting approach to foreign policy as well.  The first of these meetings took place in February, when O Su-yong replaced Kim Tu-il and became the director of the party’s Department of Economic Affair due to charges of incompetence. At this meeting, Ri Son-gwon, the foreign minister, was elevated to Politburo membership. Ri was a military veteran before being placed in charge of inter-Korean talks in 2010. A well-known ideological hardliner, his appointment as foreign minister in January 2020 and his promotion to the Politburo casts a shadow over future U.S.-DPRK negotiations.

The second meeting took place in June, when Pak Thae-song was dismissed for unknown reasons and Thae Hyong-chol, a former politburo member and educational expert, took over Choe Sang-gon’s position as director of WPK’s Science and Education department.

The third meeting took place in August, when Ri Byong-chol, the Vice Chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission and the Presidium of the Politburo Standing Committee, was dismissed for his negligence in dealing with the pandemic, along with the promotion of two new members, including Kim Sung-nam and Ho Chol-man. (Arguably cutting against the trend toward promotions to the military, Ri’s demotion left the the Presidium in the hands of four civilians: Kim Jong-un, Choe Ryong-hae, Kim Tok-hun and Jo Yong-won). In addition, Kim Sung-nam, a China expert and a long-time advisor on China issues from the party’s Foreign Affairs Department, was elevated to Politburo membership. This promotion almost certainly indicates the leaderships hope to improve relations with China, including through overt or covert sanctions relief.

We are now in a position to restate some of the findings of this exerecise and review some conjectures about what they say about the current state of play in the North Korean regime.

  • Our starting point was the observation that since the failure of the Hanoi summit in 2018, we have seen a rise in individuals coming from military careers in the Politburo; although that has fallen back somewhat over the course of 2021, it still sits at just under 50% of that body.
  • There is no reason to believe that this shift reflects the increasing power of the military or even a heightened focus on the weapons program. If anything, evidence of personalism abounds, with Kim Jong-un promoting both well-established figures but also reaching down in the ranks to pull up favorites. And just as quickly as new figures rise, they can just as quickly fall. While there is evidence of the leadership rewarding successful contributors to the weapons program, the military careers of those promoted to Politburo are diverse.
  • In particular, we found that appointments were in line with a new policy focus on military-civilian fusion: the idea either that the weapons program itself would contribute to economic growth, or more plausibly that things learned in the weapons program could have either direct or indirect effect on the civilian economy.
  • Finally, the significance of economic issues is visible in a somewhat different way. The increase in appointments coming out of the state security sector no doubt reflects a recognition that ongoing economic distress runs political risks not only among the public but among elites as well.

What if anything might this mean for the conduct of foreign policy toward North Korea, in both Seoul and Washington? We should be careful in overinterpreting this limited data; it could be a random walk reflecting little more than Kim Jong-un’s whims. But there is little heartening news here. Even if appointments from the weapons program are made partly for public relations reasons, the appointments appear to reflect the regime’s pessimism about reaching agreement with the United States and the recent emphasis on self-reliance. Worse still, it could augur a diplomacy that returns to the use of military signals, such as tests, as a way for North Korea to gain leverage.

Liuya Zhang is a PhD student in Political Science department of Ohio State University. She received her bachelor’s degree of Arts from Fudan University and master’s degree of International Studies from Seoul National University and master’s degree of International Affairs from UC San Diego. Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Photo from Torsten Pursche on 

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