North Korea held the first session of its newly-elected Supreme People's
Assembly (SPA, its rubber-stamp parliament) on April 9, during which key state
posts were appointed and the new budget outlined. This year's session came amid
the triumphalism of the regime's rocket launch on April 5.
However, the absence of significant personnel changes suggests that the
country's Great Leader, Kim Jong-il, is opting for continuity rather than
change. Significantly, a number of elderly officials retained their posts,
while no new clues emerged as to who will succeed Kim.
Kim was of course re-elected chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC),
the supreme decision-making body in North
Korea. However, although he attended the SPA session, making his first
high-profile public appearance since falling ill last summer, he looked tired,
and his hair seemed to have thinned somewhat. This appears to vindicate rumors
of his declining health. (See
Dear Leader is back with a bang, April 9, Asia Times Online)
The SPA session was eagerly anticipated by Pyongyang watchers, for it was
supposed to have been held last September. However, it was postponed by Kim's
illness, and many had expected the new assembly to reveal clues about Kim's
eventual succession. Instead, perhaps the biggest surprise of the inaugural
session was that there were no real surprises. Certainly, there were no
appearances by any of Kim's sons - Kim Jong-nam, Jong-chol and Jong-un - nor
clear signs of a generational shift.
Indeed, several octogenarian officials retained their posts. Among them Kim
Yong-nam, the 81-year old former foreign minister, was re-elected to a third
term as president of the presidium of the SPA - a largely ceremonial post that
allows him to travel the world as titular head of state and greet visiting
More surprising was that Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok, also 81, was reappointed
first vice chairman of the NDC, despite reports in recent years that he is
terminally ill with kidney disease. Rumors of Jo's potential retirement had
been bandied ahead of the previous SPA in September 2003, so his continuation
suggests that Kim Jong-il intends to follow custom and retain top officials
until they pass away.
In theory, Jo's post is the number two position in the hierarchy, so had Jo
retired, his replacement could be seen to be a potential leader in waiting. Two
other octogenarian officials also retained their seats in the National Defense
Commission, while the assembly's chairman, Choe Thae-bok, 80, was also
National Defense Commission the key
Also noteworthy was the expansion of the National Defense Commission to take in
six new members, increasing the total to 13 - the biggest the NDC has been
since its creation in 1990. The enlargement of the NDC suggests that it is
being developed as the core of a military dominated collective leadership that
could assume power if Kim Jong-il fails to choose a successor.
Most notably, Kim's powerful brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, was appointed to
the NDC. Jang, 63, is already considered the de facto number two man in
Pyongyang, thanks to his position as head of internal administration. Although
he has had his ups and downs in the hierarchy, his return to favor in late 2006
suggests that he will play a key role in the succession, possibly even as an
interim successor, or as a guardian of one of Kim's sons. However, Jang was not
made a vice chairman of the NDC, suggesting that he will play an auxiliary
Of the three vice chairmen of the NDC, two stand out. The first is Vice Marshal
Kim Yong-chun, 73, who served as chief of the army's general staff in 1995-2007
and became defense minister in a military reshuffle in February 2009. He now
seems to be Kim Jong-il's main point man in the military and is a known
hardliner. Chances are he will head the military if Kim and Jo pass away. The
second is General O Kuk-ryol, who was appointed vice chairman in February.
General O, 78, was Kim Jong-il's closest military ally in the 1980s, when he
was chief of the general staff, but fell out of favor in 1988 and has kept a
low profile ever since. He is the chief of the regime's special operations
bureau, giving him access to elite troops. General O was identified by a South
Korean parliamentary report in 2006 as Kim Jong-il's most likely successor. His
elevation would appear to refute rumors in late 2004 that his son O Se-uk had
defected to Japan and thence the US.
Former defense minister Kim Il-chol, 76, who was demoted in February to first
vice defense minister, retained his NDC seat, suggesting that he has not fallen
from favor. Other new members of the NDC included General Ju Sang-song, the
minister of public security, Ju Kyu-chang, a top aide of Kim Jong-il, and
General Kim Jong-gak, deputy chief of the army's political bureau (headed by Jo
Myong-rok). Also noteworthy was the appointment of a hitherto unknown figure -
U Tong-chuk - to the NDC. Given that his name is not recognized by Pyongyang
watchers, he could be a pseudonym for some other high-profile figure.
While the appointments to the NDC were significant, Kim Jong-il had already
made an important reshuffle of the military establishment in February. Back
then, in addition to Kim Yong-chun's reassignment, the chief of the general
staff, General Kim Kyok-sik, was removed after barely two years in office (an
unusually short period of time) and sent to command the army's frontline fourth
corps, facing the West Sea. This move may be aimed at initiating a new naval
confrontation with South Korea. Pyongyang does not recognize the Northern Limit
Line (the inter-Korean maritime border) and armed clashes at sea in 1999 and
2002 had led to fatalities. Kim Kyok-sik's successor as army chief was General
Ri Yong-ho, previously head of Pyongyang Defense Command.
Over the past year or so, Kim Jong-il had also named new air force and navy
commanders, replacing incumbents who had been in office more than 10 years.
Overall, these changes are interpreted to mean that Kim is shoring up his
control of the powerful military establishment.
No change in economic policy
On the economic front, the Supreme People's Assembly re-elected Kim Yong-il,
63, as premier of the cabinet - a post he has held since April 2007, when his
predecessor Pak Pong-ju's term was unceremoniously cut short. (Pak had
reportedly fallen out of favor with Jang Song-thaek.) Although Kim Yong-il is
theoretically in charge of the economy, in practice all decisions concerning
economic policy come from Kim Jong-il and his top aides.
Similarly, new Finance Minister Kim Wan-su (previously central bank president)
and new central bank president Ri Kwang-gon (previously foreign trade minister)
are largely symbolic. Both men are former diplomats involved in external
economic relations, which gives them experience with the outside world.
However, neither are in a position to reform the economy.
In any case, Kim Jong-il is unlikely to be in a mood to enact economic reform
in 2009. Despite its relative isolation, North Korea's economy has reportedly
suffered from reduced cross-border trade with China, whose economic growth is
slowing rapidly. Moreover, North Korea's media have seized on the global
economic crisis to criticize global capitalism. Given that excessive free
market policies are under criticism worldwide, it would be odd if Pyongyang
decided that now was the time for sweeping economic reforms.
Continuity over change
Overall, Kim Jong-il has chosen continuity over change. However, given that
many senior officials are now in their 70s and 80s, the regime is likely to
face a wave of age-related departures over the next five to 10 years. This will
allow Kim to gradually replace veteran figures with younger ones, although
"younger" in this case will mean those in their 60s or 50s, rather than those
in their 40s.
While Kim's sons have not made it to top leadership posts, there is speculation
that their roles will develop behind the scenes, much like Kim Jong-il's career
did in the 1970s. Meanwhile, in the event that Kim departs without having
identified a clear successor, the newly-expanded National Defense Commission
will form a strong basis for a military-dominated collective leadership.