The fourth session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), held in Pyongyang on June 29, 2016, was the major political event in the country following the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) convened from May 6 to 9, 2016. Specifically, the meeting was aimed at effecting the restructuring of the national organizations according to the directions announced during the Party Congress. Furthermore, it represented the last step of Kim Jong Un’s strategy aimed at consolidating his rule, “normalizing” the country’s internal situation and declaring to the external world that North Korea is a full nuclear weapons state that has to be recognized as such.
The SPA, created in 1948, is the unicameral legislative body in North Korea, but its main function is limited to formally approve “rubber-stamp” decisions already made by the leader and the ruling WPK. Indeed, the decision making process takes place outside the SPA while its components, the representatives elected in each district of the country, passing those decisions into laws, give the impression that they act as a united front in realizing the will of the population. Nevertheless, SPA meetings still represent worthy events and continue to be used for communicating constitutional, institutional and personnel changes to the whole country.
The establishment of a new supreme organ, the State Affairs Commission (SAC), was the main change carried out by the SPA through the amendment of two sections of the DPRK Constitution. First, it amended Section 2 in order to create the position of Chairman of the SAC, fulfilled by Kim Jong Un, who lost his old title of Chairman of the NDC. The new title adds to the others already awarded to the leader, i.e. Chairman of the WPK, Chairman of the WPK Central Military Commission (CMC) and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army (KPA).
This means that Kim Jong Un performs the highest position in all the areas of power in North Korea and the institutionalization of his autocratic rule may be considered complete. Moreover, in the amended Constitution, Kim Jong Un is also defined as the “Supreme Leader of the Republic” and is given the new duty of forming a national defense committee in time of war and the power to dismiss and appoint key executives of the country.
Second, the Assembly amended Section 3, in which the authority and duties of the government’s supreme organization are prescribed, in order to replace the NDC with the SAC. This move also implies that the departments and sections previously under the control of the NDC are now administered by the new commission.
The creation of the SAC is not insignificant if we consider that the NDC was the most powerful political organ during Kim Jong Il’s reign. This change further shows the coherence of Kim Jong Un’s political line, aimed at differentiating his leadership from that of the father and projecting the image of a leader more interested in “improving the people’s living standards” through the economic development of North Korea, at least apparently, as his grandfather Kim Il Sung did.
Since his inception as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un has promoted the policy of parallel development of the nuclear program and the economy of the country, called Byungjin. The timing of the introduction of the SAC in the North’s political system is not casual but is intended to further stress that the country has attained a great success with its nuclear program and can now focus on – and utilize more resources for – the increase of the economic side of the Byungjin Line.
In this regard, it has been affirmed that the SAC will have the highest responsibility and role for the implementation of the Five Year Strategy for State Economic Development. However, the only member of the SAC with a deep expertise on economic affairs is Pak Pong Ju, the premier of DPRK Cabinet, who can now claim the role of driver of North Korea’s economic policy and future direction. Pak himself reported to the SPA many economic goals but did not provide any detailed policies. But the SPA appointed three new vice premiers in order to favor the Cabinet’s mandate: Ri Ju O, Ri Ryong Nam and Ko In Ho, who was also appointed Minister of Agriculture. All these men have an economic portfolio, experience in dealing with foreign interlocutors, were in office when the July 2002 economic reforms were introduced and know economic policies and execution methods.
Beyond that, with the launch of the SAC the young leader has strengthened his grip on each sector of state affairs by either appointing officials with proven loyalty to him to the commission’s highest positions and expanding its role and areas of interest. Whereas “national defense” was the focus of Kim Jong Il politics during the Songun era, Kim Jong Un and the new SAC prioritize the broader area of “state affairs”. The analysis of the composition of the SAC confirms this.
Apart from the chairman, the SAC has three vice chairmen: Hwang Pyong So, director of the KPA General Political Bureau; Choe Ryong Hae, WPK Secretary of Workers’ Organization and vice chair of the WPK Central Committee; and Pak Pong Ju, premier of the DPRK Cabinet. The military, the party and the government are thus all represented and Kim Jong Un can directly control not only the military affairs of the country but also its external relations, galvanized by the latest “successful” nuclear and missile tests.
The inclusion of Ri Su Yong, a vice chairman of the WPK Central Committee and former Foreign Minister and Ri Yong Ho, minister of Foreign Affairs, among the regular members of the commission further reinforces the involvement of the SAC in determining and implementing North Korea’s foreign policy in the near future. How Pyongyang will deal with the international community, especially South Korea and the United States, and manage its relationship with China, is crucial given the tense situation in the region and the need to cope with the latest UNSC sanctions, i.e. Resolution 2270, that are also increasing the existing isolation of the country.
Moreover, the appointments of Ri Man Gon, a vice chairman in the WPK Central Committee; Kim Ki Nam, director of the WPK Propaganda and Agitation Department; and of Kim Yong Chol, director of the United Front Department; along with that of Pak Yong Sik, minister of the People’s Armed Force; Kim Won Hong, minister of State Security; and Choe Pu Il, minister of People’s Security, signal that the SAC will be involved in the national security policy and unification policy as well as party and government affairs. The SAC has inherited all the functions of the NDC and will share its military and security responsibilities with the WPK Central Military Commission.
Compared to the NDC, the SAC contains fewer members representing the military and security sectors but more senior officials from the WPK and the government. On the other hand, about one-third of the SAC members still belong to the KPA and the internal security services, i.e. Hwang Pyong So, Pak Yong Sik, Kim Won Hong and Choe Pu Il. This reflects a specific choice of Kim Jong Un. As affirmed by Michael Madden, “rather than fully sweeping out the top leadership, the SAC and Kim Jong Un ended the military dominance by introducing more officials from elsewhere.” In order to guarantee the stability of the DPRK’s political system and the survival of the Kim regime, the military cannot be alienated but a sort of balance of power between all actors must be preserved. On the other hand, each North Korean leader has created his loyalty base and Kim Jong Un has chosen the party. The WPK control is increased by the fact that all SAC members are also members of the WPK Political Bureau, the WPK Executive Policy Bureau, or the CMC.
After four years in power, the young leader has been able to consolidate his internal legitimacy and secure his position through the adaptation of the North Korean political system to the changed internal and external environment. In this system not only has the party reaffirmed the role of main political actor but also it is linked to the other actors in a way that discourages any competition between party, military and government elites, and makes the leader the undisputed Suryong of North Korea.
Featured image: Korean Central Television
The fourth session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), held in Pyongyang on June 29, 2016, was the major political event in the country following the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) convened from May 6 to 9, 2016. Specifically, the meeting was aimed at effecting the restructuring of the national organizations according to the directions announced during the Party
Maria Rosaria Coduti is a columnist for NK News. She is a Blue Book Trainee at the European Commission, EEAS department, and a Ph.D. Candidate at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. She received both a BA and MA, with honors, at the School of Political Science of the University of Bologna. She has previously worked as Non-Resident Junior Research Fellow at ISDP and has written on North Korea for the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, North Korean Review Online and the Korea Economic Institute blog. During her last MA year, Ms. Coduti conducted research on North Korea’s foreign policy. Her research interests focus on domestic and foreign policy of the two Koreas and China, inter-Korean relations, nuclear and security issues in Northeast Asia, and cognitive foreign policy analysis and role theory.