The Workers’ Party of North Korea bestowed the title of “General Secretary” upon dictator Kim Jong-un on Sunday, celebrating his leadership because he “gloriously realized the historic mission to complete the country’s nuclear build-up plan.”
The party also published a new list of its governing Politburo members, and Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong was intriguingly absent from the roster.
The Workers’ Party spent the past six days holding its first party congress in five years. The event began with an unusual admission by Kim that his regime fell “extremely” short of meeting its economic goals in its last five-year economic plan, hindered by obstacles “both from outside and inside.”
The North Korean dictatorship rarely admits any degree of error but, of course, Kim’s comments were not a sign of deep introspection or a signal that reforms would be forthcoming; it was more like a prelude to further belligerence against the outside world and more political purges at home.
By Sunday, the Workers’ Party was theatrically granting a “promotion” to the man who was already an absolute dictator with unlimited power, ceremonially elevating Kim to the rank of Party General Secretary, a position held only by his father and grandfather before him. His late predecessors still technically outrank him, as his father Kim Jong-Il is the “eternal general secretary” of the party and his grandfather Kim Il-sung is the “eternal president.”
Kim was already the top nominal official in the Workers’ Party under a series of increasingly grandiose titles, in addition to holding numerous other top offices in the North Korean system.
The Party also shuffled several other titles around and renamed its governing body from the “Executive Party Council” to the “Secretariat.”
The dictator’s sister Kim Yo-Jong was quietly demoted from membership in the Politburo, to the surprise of observers who saw her as a rising star in the hideous dictatorship who might even be groomed to take over from her unhealthy brother when he dies or chooses to retire.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) quoted analysts who thought Kim Jong-un wanted to trim his sister’s wings just a little, minimizing any threat she might pose to his power without purging or humiliating her:
Ms. Kim’s removal from the Politburo reinforces that North Korea is run by a single person, rather than any codified system or set of rules, said Park Won-gon, an international studies professor at South Korea’s Handong Global University. The decision also brings potential benefits to Mr. Kim, he adds.
“Kim Jong Un might think that it is better not to give an official position for his sister because if he did, she could grab her own power network,” Mr. Park said.
But in a sign she still holds internal sway, Ms. Kim has sat just a few feet behind her brother at the ongoing congress meeting—only the third such event in more than four decades—which suggests she is likely to remain active in her recent role as the regime’s mouthpiece for U.S. and South Korean relations, close Pyongyang watchers say.
The WSJ pointed out that Kim Yo-jong missed a few Politburo meetings over the past year, a possible signal that her position as Kim Jong-un’s unofficial Number Two and spokesperson is fairly secure, but he wants to make it clear she will not be rising any higher.
The regime in Pyongyang evidently wishes to project an image of defiance and strength, even as its new economic program begins diverting military resources to civilian production in a time of diplomatic isolation and severe economic hardship.
To that end, Kim Jong-un did some saber-rattling during the party congress, describing the United States as his “biggest main enemy,” vowing to keep improving North Korea’s nuclear missile capabilities, and evidently holding a military parade on Sunday night.
“Our external political activities must focus on our arch-enemy and the fundamental obstacle to our revolutionary development, the United States. The efforts will focus on overpowering and bringing them to their knees,” Kim told the party congress.
“Whoever takes office in the U.S., its basic nature and hostile policy will never change,” he said.
Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Bloomberg News the North Koreans want to “light a fire under the Biden administration.”
“Kim is making clear that if Biden decides not to prioritize North Korea policy, Pyongyang will resume testing and qualitatively advancing its nuclear capabilities in ways that would be seriously detrimental for Washington and Seoul,” Panda said.