N. Korea creates “first secretary” role under Kim Jong-un, seemingly mindful of succession plan

Posted on : 2021-06-02 17:16 KST Modified on : 2021-06-02 17:16 KST
The move could be interpreted as being meant to groom a potential successor to Kim Jong-un
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves his hands after attending a performance celebrating the Eighth Workers’ Party of Korea Congress on Jan. 14. (Yonhap News)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves his hands after attending a performance celebrating the Eighth Workers’ Party of Korea Congress on Jan. 14. (Yonhap News)

In an amendment of its Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) rules at a party Congress in January, North Korea created the position of a “first secretary,” it has been confirmed.

It’s a move that could be interpreted as meant to groom a potential successor to Kim Jong-un.

In an examination of the amended WPK rules Tuesday, the Hankyoreh confirmed that it included a new sentence that had not appeared in past rules.

“The first secretary of the party Central Committee is the representative of the Workers’ Party of Korea General Secretary,” it reads.

The new party rules, which were revised and adopted on the first day of the Eighth WPK Congress on Jan. 9, included the new rule in its Article 26 concerning the party’s Central Committee. In addition to the rule about a “representative for the General Secretary,” the article also states that the “party Central Committee shall elect the party Central Committee first secretary and other secretaries.”

The general secretary, who “conducts all activities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” according to Article 11 of the North Korean Constitution, is Kim Jong-un, the third-generation leader from the “Paektu bloodline.”

The new provision concerning a “representative” for the general security is being interpreted as intended to groom a potential successor to Kim. The Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the WPK Central Committee, reported on the changes to the party rules on page 2 of its Jan. 10 edition but made no mention of the fact that the new post of “WPK Central Committee first secretary” had been created. No individual has been publicly referred to by the title to date.

The position of a “WPK Central Committee first secretary” as a representative of the party’s general secretary is unprecedented in the more than 70-year history of the WPK.

Current leader Kim Jong-un was named as “WPK first secretary” at one point while his father Kim Jong-il was selected “eternal general secretary” at a 4th WPK Representatives’ Meeting on April 11, 2012, shortly after the elder Kim’s death. But that title existed only until the 7th WPK Congress was held in May 2016.

The installed position of “WPK first secretary” and the newly created elected position of “WPK Central Committee first secretary” harbor different implications in several respects.

How should the North’s decision not to announce the creation of its new “first secretary/general secretary’s representative” system be taken? Two main interpretations appear possible.

First, it may have created the provision — which appears intended as part of a system to name a potential successor to the leadership — as a preliminary step for the future. In this case, it could be read as meant to ensure the stability of the leadership system.

A second possibility is that someone, in particular, may already have been elected as “WPK Central Committee first secretary,” and Pyongyang has deliberately decided not to make the fact public.

Of the two possibilities, the former seems relatively more likely at present, given Kim Jong-un’s relatively young age of 37 and the tendency for his regime to be much more transparent about sharing information publicly than his father Kim Jong-il’s.

Kim Yo-jong is a strong candidate

So who did Pyongyang have in mind specifically with its “representative” provision? A strong candidate is WPK Central Committee First Deputy Director Kim Yo-jong, who has taken on the role of “representative” in various governance areas — including South Korean and US affairs — since meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in as her brother Kim Jong-un’s special envoy at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in early February 2018.

Regardless of her officially stated position, Kim Yo-jong is the sole member of the “Paektu bloodline” who has engaged in public activities from a central role in the Pyongyang power structure.

The term “Paektu bloodline” is used in North Korea to refer to the Kim dynasty, which connects Kim Il-sung — regarded as the “founder of socialist Choson” and the “eternal leader” — to his son Kim Jong-il and grandson Kim Jong-un.

Kim Yo-jong’s role as her brother’s representative since 2018, especially in areas related to foreign policy, has led South Korea, the US and Japan to view her as — in the words of one key South Korean government official — “the fastest and surest route to Kim Jong-un.”

In North Korea as well, Kim Yo-jong has been publicly described as holding a “special status.” An illustration came in June 2020 when she organized the North’s response to defector groups launching balloons carrying propaganda leaflets from the South.

Her June 4 statement condemning the launches was followed by various “indignation rallies” throughout North Korea, and “responses from all walks of life” received major Rodong Sinmun coverage for days on end.

The lead piece on page two of the June 6 edition of the Rodong Sinmun — seen as required reading for the North Korean public — was a statement from a spokesperson for the United Front Department, who said that Kim Yo-jong had “issued directions” and was “supervising efforts related to the South.”

In all but the most special circumstances, it is only the top North Korean leader’s statements that lead in turn to “indignation rallies,” “responses from all walks of life,” and “directions.”

Another possibility is that the figure elected as “first secretary” was Jo Yong-won, a WPK Central Committee Political Bureau Presidium and Central Military Commission (CMC) member who made a rapid rise during the Eighth Congress.

Some of the factors cited behind this speculation include a Feb. 11 report in the Rodong Sinmun stating that he “scathingly criticized officials in the party’s Central Committee and government” during a second plenary session of the Central Committee in February, and reports that he spoke about “how to more thoroughly establish a single leadership system for the party center” during an inaugural talk for city and county party secretaries in March.

On this basis, analysts have suggested that Jo is now serving as North Korea’s de facto second-in-command and a kind of “chief of staff” for Kim Jong-un.

But many experts who have studied the WPK over the years predicted that the only “representative” North Korea would consider for its leader would be a potential successor from the Paektu bloodline, rather than a second-in-command figure.

Some implications may be found in the history of past North Korean positions that included the word “first.”

An examination solely of cases after Kim Il-sung’s death shows that Jo Myong-rok, who served as “first vice chairman” of the National Defense Commission in the 1990s and 200s, and Choe Ryong-hae, who currently serves as “first vice president” of the State Affairs Commission, both represented number two figures in the power hierarchy.

Not being members of the Paektu bloodline, they invariably had titles where the word “first” was followed by the word “vice.”

The only examples of “first” titles that did not also include the word “vice” were both given to Kim Jong-un as third-generation successor under the Paektu bloodline: “first secretary” of the WPK and “first chairman” of the CMC, which he received on April 13, 2012.

By Le Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories