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The Peninsula

The Eternal General Secretary Makes Way for Other Political Changes in North Korea

Published April 11, 2012
Category: North Korea

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

After holding its Fourth Conference of the Workers’ Party of Korea, North Korea now has an eternal president and an eternal general secretary. Kim Jong-il was named Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), and Kim Jong-un was given the title of First Secretary of the WPK. These initial changes and those suspected to come in the next few days will give some indications on how North Korea will try to structure its leadership under Kim Jong-un.

After his death, it was likely that North Korea would try to honor Kim Jong-il in some way. The Kim family lineage being an important aspect of the young Kim Jong-un’s power, it was anticipated that Kim Jong-il would be given a special recognition along the lines of Kim Il-sung. There were some predictions that Kim Jong-il would be given an eternal title in connection with the National Defense Commission (NDC). Now with Kim Jong-il posthumously given the title of Eternal General Secretary, it will be interesting to see if this move further indicates a renewed emphasis leadership on the Party instead of the military.

For Kim Jong-un, he officially becomes head of the party through the new position of first secretary. After the death of Kim Jong-il, North Korean media labeled Kim Jong-un as head of the Party and supreme commander of the military. Even in the story announcing Kim Jong-un’s new title, KCNA said Kim Jong-un as the “supreme leader of the WPK and the people of the DPRK” was elected “as first secretary of the WPK, true to the behest of leader Kim Jong Il.” With him as the head of the party, the question now is Kim Jong-un officially the chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC)?

A week after Kim Jong-il’s death, the Rodong Sinmun apparently said Kim Jong-un was leading the CMC. Yet, the AP’s Jean Lee recently saw signs in North Korea saying “”We will defend vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission Comrade Kim Jong Un to the death.” According to the Party’s constitution updated in September 2010, it states the “general secretary” (총비서) is also the chairman of the Central Military Commission, compared to Kim Jong-un’s new title as first secretary (제1비서). KCNA did say that the Fourth Conference of the WPK discussed “revising WPK rules,” so possibly this is where changes will occur to officially connect Kim Jong-un’s new title with the chairmanship of the CMC.

Further evidence of Party strengthening can be seen with Jang Song Taek and Kim Kyong Hui, uncle and aunt of Kim Jong-un, moving into prominent positions in the WPK. Jang Song Taek now joins the Political Bureau while his wife becomes a secretary in the Party Secretariat. Ri Myong Su, the Minister of Public Security, joins Jang Song Taek on the Political Bureau and was named a member of the CMC. Ri Myong Su, the Minister of Public Security, joins Jang Song Taek on the Political Bureau and was named a member of the CMC.

Choe Ryong Hae and Hyon Chol Hae, members of the CMC and the NDC respectively, were both awarded the title of Vice Marshal in the Korean People’s Army. These military promotions probably helped with their new positions in the WPK. Choe, a relatively young leader at 61 and appears to have close ties with Jang Song Taek, was given big promotions to Vice-Chairmen of the CMC as well as a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau. Hyon Chol Hae is now part of the CMC in addition to his role in the NDC.

For leadership changes, we will wait to see if any other announcements are made on moves stemming from the Workers’ Party Conference. With the WPK having a lot of changes during its last recent meeting in September 2010, it is possible few other changes will occur. The Supreme People’s Assembly is scheduled to meet on Friday, April 13, so more news could follow. The main question still remains if Kim Jong-un will officially be the chair of the CMC and the NDC, despite North Korean media basically describing him as the supreme leader of the Party and the military. All of these meetings and moves, along with the anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday next week, are meant to illustrate North Korea’s ability to smoothly transition to Kim Jong-un.

Early indications suggest a strengthening of the Party as key members of the North Korean leadership gain positions. If Kim Jong-un will indeed rule more through the Party than his father, he will likely need people like Jang Song Taek, Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Gak, and Ri Myong Su to help him. Their new positions, along with the promotions of Choe Ryong Hae and Hyon Chol Hae give some indication on how Kim Jong-un and the leaders around him plan to maintain power and begin a new era of Kim family leadership in North Korea.

For more info on Kim Jong-un, Jang Song Taek,  Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Yong Chun, and Ri Myong Su, visit  10 People You Need to Know for Transition in North Korea on The Peninsula blog.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Zennie Abraham’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.


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