It was not exactly a surprise to see Kim Jong-un “re-elected” as chairman of the North Korean State Affairs Commission – i.e. absolute dictator – on Friday, but quite a few other government posts were shaken up, suggesting Kim is determined to tighten his grip on power.
NPR looked at the changes Kim made and found it difficult to guess exactly what he thinks the next step will be since he did not back away from either “negotiations with the U.S. or a self-imposed moratorium on testing of missiles and bombs.”
NPR’s guess is that Kim wants to batten down the hatches against sanctions and ride the Trump administration out, hoping for a more pliable U.S. president in 2020:
Long-serving officials such as 91-year-old Kim Jong-nam, the titular head of state, and Premier Pak Pong-ju, 80, were either retired or promoted to symbolic posts and replaced by younger officials.
Kim’s main message came on Wednesday, when he told ruling Workers’ Party officials to make the country’s economy self-sufficient, “so as to deal a telling blow to the hostile forces who go with bloodshot eyes, miscalculating that sanctions can bring (North Korea) to its knees,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
The remarks were clearly aimed at Washington, and they come weeks after a second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi that ended abruptly with no progress toward the U.S. goal of ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
Analysts believe the historically tough sanctions the United States and United Nations applied are only just beginning to weaken the North Korean economy in ways that could lead to significant public unrest. President Trump has evidently refused an appeal from South Korean President Moon Jae-in to lighten sanctions, a development Kim may have anticipated.
North Korean media touted Kim’s “re-election” as chair of the State Affairs Commission as an expression of “the general will of all the Korean people” and their gratitude for Kim’s “outstanding ideological and theoretical wisdom and experienced and seasoned leadership and demonstrating the politico-ideological might and tremendous power of socialist Korea on the highest level.”
“Holding Kim Jong-un invariably in high esteem as the top leader of the DPRK is the reflection of the deep reverence and trust of all the party members, people and servicepersons of the People’s Army in him who has opened up a bright future of all generations to come by leading the Workers’ Party of Korea and the DPRK to only victory with his rare political abilities and sweeping revolutionary practices,” the state news agency gushed.
Korean state media also graced Kim with a new title, “Supreme Representative of All the Korean People,” which is not mere hyperbole but an actual title ratified by government decree several months ago.
Analysts viewed Friday’s announcements as the biggest shake-up in North Korean government in years, a consolidation of power that clearly separated Kim Jong-un’s regime from that of his father for the first time.
One of the most interesting new appointments was Choe Ryong-hae’s ascension to president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, displacing one of the most ancient officials in service and completing his political rehabilitation after a stint in a re-education camp in 2015. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Choe for human rights abuses in 2018. He is a longtime mentor to Kim Jong-un and might now be the most powerful North Korean who is not a member of the Kim dynasty.
The National saw the North Korean shakeup as a generational shift, with many of the outgoing officials in their 70s, 80s, or even older. South Korean analysts believe Choe is being positioned to supervise North Korea’s top diplomats since one of his titles is vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission, a position his predecessor did not hold. The South Koreans were optimistic the new arrangement means Pyongyang intends to take diplomacy seriously moving forward.
Another signal taken from the North Korean reshuffle is that North Korea’s senior diplomat to the United States, Choe Son-hui, was promoted to vice foreign minister and may inherit many of the diplomatic responsibilities formerly held by General Kim Yong-chol.
Kim Yong-chol was considered a controversial choice for point man because he is held responsible for North Korea’s attack on the South Korean warship Cheonan in 2010. South Korean media has speculated he will take the blame for the unsuccessful Hanoi summit.