North Korea is ruled by the Party and the Party’s top institution is the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Central Committee (조선로동당 중앙위원회 정치국 상무위원회, also sometimes translated as “Presidium”).
In addition to Kim Jong Un, of course, the Committee has three members. This piece is dedicated to this institution, and the three other men who hold the top spots.
The Politburo Standing Committee came into existence relatively late in North Korean history. It was formed in 1980 at the Sixth Congress of the Party – the same event which saw Kim Jong Il appearing urbi et orbi for the first time. Most likely the institution was copied from China: the Communist Party of China had used a Standing Committee since the 1920s.
The first Standing Committee, elected in 1980, did not change for 30 years. This meant that with the death of O Jin U in 1995 Kim Jong Il became its only member, effectively rendering the institution useless.
It was de facto revived in 2010 at the Third Party Conference, the event which saw Kim Jong Un appearing urbi et orbi for the first time. Like in 1980, it was composed of five members, including the Supreme Leader, but, notably, Kim Jong Un was not included in the list.
One of the members, Jo Myong Rok, died soon after and, in December 2011, so did Kim Jong Il. The Fourth Conference of the Party in April 2012 appointed Kim Jong Un and Choe Ryong Hae to their places.
One of the members of the committee, Ri Yong Ho, was later purged and another one, Premier Choe Yong Rim, retired. They were replaced by Hwang Pyong So and the new Premier Pak Pong Ju at the Seventh Congress in 2016.
Hwang Pyong So later suffered a demotion and has not returned to the top elite since. Following his demise, Choe Ryong Hae was elevated to the third place in the Committee.
As a result, the Standing Committee consists of four members. The first is Kim Jong Un, the second is Kim Yong Nam, the third is Choe Ryong Hae, and the fourth is Pak Pong Ju. As in China, this order is kept during all official messages.
Looking at the history of the institution, we can see that there are only two positions which guarantee membership in the Standing Committee – that of the Supreme Leader and that of the Premier.
Ri Jong Ok, the first Premier to be become a member of the Committee, was reportedly expelled about the same time his Premiership was terminated. Others were more likely chosen to be members as a personal honor, reflecting their own status in the elite, not the position they held.
The survivor: Kim Yong Nam
Other positions: Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly
Formally the second man in the Party, Kim Yong Nam remains one of the oldest North Korean politicians and perhaps, the one with the most stable career. Born in 1928, his original name was Kim Myong-sam and he comes from the bloodline of Chonju Kims – the same as Kim Il Sung, meaning that he is a very distant relative of the ruling family.
There are various rumors surrounding his birthplace. Officially it is Pyongyang, but other sources name Dapu Shihe village in Gulouzi Township in Kuandian Manchu Autonomous County of Dandong – a city in China’s Liaoning Province which borders North Korea and where Kim Yong Nam’s father Kim Thaek Se’s family used to live.
Reportedly, Kim Yong Nam came to North Korea as a soldier of the Chinese Volunteer army. Before the war was over, he was sent to the USSR to study, likely witnessing the aftermath of Stalin’s death. His links to both China and the Soviet Union helped his career, and he became a section chief in the Foreign Department of the Central Committee of the Party in 1956.
His entire career – more than 60 years – has been focused on foreign policy. By 1962, he was the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs and in 1972 became Chairman of the Foreign Department of the Central Committee. It was at the same time when he was elected to the Supreme People’s Assembly.
Kim became an alternate member of the Politburo in June 1974, the same year Kim Jong Il was anointed to be Kim Il Sung’s successor. In 1980, he was promoted to a full member and also given a position as a Party Secretary.
In 1998, Kim Yong Nam’s career reached its peak. He became the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, replacing his predecessor Yang Hyong Sop. Kim kept this post for more than 20 years: a remarkably long term for any politician, let along one in a dictatorship. As Chairman he has met various foreign officials, conducted visits abroad, and formally introduced suggestions to re-elect the current Kim to another term as a head of state.
Kim Yong Nam’s decades of faithful service to the Kim family appears to have earned him a level of personal respect from the ruling family. Pak Ji-won, a South Korean politician who has several times visited the North, has said that Kim Jong Il referred to Kim Yong Nam as “Respected Chairman of the Presidium” (상임위원장님). Kim Yong Nam was the only politician to get such special treatment, as Kim Jong Il normally treated his other subordinates in an authoritarian and patronizing way.
Kim Yong Nam also had two prominent brothers. One of them, Kim Tu Nam, became a four-star general and served as a deputy minister of the People’s Armed Forces for some time. Despite Tu Nam being a younger brother, Yong Nam outlived him: Kim Tu Nam died in 2009. Another brother, Kim Ki Nam, is a full member of the Politburo and is still alive.
His son Kim Tong Ho and daughter Kim Ho Jong are also reported to work in the diplomatic field.
The princeling: Choe Ryong Hae
Other positions: Vice-Chairman of the WPK Central Committee, Vice-Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, possibly head of the Party Organisation and Guidance Department
One of the most important facts about Choe Ryong Hae is that he is the son of Choe Hyon, one of Kim Il Sung’s closest comrades-in-arms. Reportedly, Kim Hyon called the Great Leader “Il Sung,” refusing to use any monikers, and got away with it. Choe Ryong Hae’s father, who died in 1982, was also the Minister of People’s Armed Forces and by some reports, the key figure in Kim Jong Il’s ascension.
Choe Ryong Hae made his career in the DPRK’s Youth Union, which he started to lead in 1986. While his position remained stable for about a decade, in the late 1990s Choe suffered a downfall. Compromising materials on him, distributed by closed channels in North Korea and seen by an NK Pro source, described him not only as a highly corrupt but also as a personally depraved and even sadistic individual.
Nevertheless, around 2003 Choe was restored to power. In 2006, he was given the position of secretary of the North Hamgyong Province. In 2010, he received the rank of a four-star general alongside Kim Jong Un and became an alternate member of the Politburo.
His career under Kim Jong Un saw many ups and downs. At first, he appeared to be a rising figure. He was the only person admitted to the Standing Committee in 2012, skipping the “full Politburo member” stage. At the same time, he was promoted to Vice-Marshal (thus outranking his father). Judging by the fact that he wore the badge of a graduate of Kim Il Sung University, he never received a proper military education. Yet in the same year, he was briefly demoted to General of the Army, before being reinstated again.
In 2013, Choe became Kim Jong Un’s special envoy to negotiate with China, as relations between Beijing and Pyongyang deteriorated. Yet in late February/early March 2014, he was rumored to be arrested – these rumors were disproved when he appeared in the public again after several weeks of absence.
Yet, since the rise of Hwang Pyong So in May 2014, Choe never appeared in a uniform, leading to the suppositions that he had been stripped of his rank. However, after that Choe Ryong Hae became a member of one of the strangest visits of North Korean officials to the South: he, alongside Kim Yang Gon and Hwang Pyong So, visited the closing ceremony of Asian Games.
2015 saw him removed from the Standing Committee and demoted to a regular Politburo member – reportedly the work of Hwang Pyong So.
Yet Choe Ryong Hae had the last laugh. Not only did he reclaim his position in the Standing Committee in 2016, but he was reportedly behind Hwang Pyong So’s expulsion from the same group in 2017. Reports suggest Choe initiated a checkup of the Main Political Department Hwang was in charge of, with the result showing enough corruption to ruin Hwang’s career.
Meanwhile, Choe Ryong Hae reportedly occupied arguably the key position in the entire Party apparatus: that of a head of the Organisation and Guidance Department, which oversees high-level appointments.
More recently, the media reported on conflicts between Choe Ryong Hae and another member of the Standing Committee, Pak Pong Ju. It is unknown which of the two Kim Jong Un favors, as his public criticism in 2018 included both the Cabinet – Pak’s responsibility, and the Organisation and Guidance Department, led by Choe.
As for his family, reportedly, Choe has one son – Choe Hyon Chol, who is a middle-level bureaucrat and has been rumored to be married to Kim Yo Jong – Kim Jong Un’s sister.
The outsider: Pak Pong Ju
Other positions: Premier, Vice-Chairman of the State Affairs Commission
Unlike Choe Ryong Hae, Premier Pak Pong Ju comes from a humble background. Born in Joshin (now Kimchaek) in 1939, Pak graduated from Tokchon Industrial College. In the 1960s he worked as a director of a food factory.
The Sixth Congress in 1980 saw his name being included on the list of the alternate members of the Central Committee. A Vice-Chairman of the Party Department for Economic Police and Inspection (경제정책검열부 부부장) since 1994, and a Minister of Chemical Industry since 1998, he became Premier in 2002.
Pak Pong Ju is widely considered to be a prominent member of a team favoring economic reforms in North Korea, a team which also included his immediate predecessor in the position of the premier, Hong Song Nam.
His first tenure was less successful than that of Hong Song Nam. While Hong’s tenure saw the legalization of foreign trade by individual enterprises in 1998 and also 2002’s major reform package, Pak met with a lot of opposition from conservatives, who believed the reformists were going too far.
It seems that Kim Jong Il, who had favored the reforms in the early 2000s, chose to side with them, with the key event likely being the Ryongchon explosion of 2004.
Eventually, Pak Pong Ju was dismissed from the position of a Premier and demoted to a factory director in 2007. Conservatives were triumphant, but the methods they advocated for did not work. Their rule ended in late 2009 with the spectacular failure of the currency reform. That reform, the main component of which was a simultaneous increase of salaries 100 times, immediately cause hyperinflation which escalated into civil unrest.
A prominent member of the anti-reform faction, Pak Nam Gi, was executed and it seems that this was the time when the DPRK leadership finally realized that decentralization and other reforms of the economy were a necessity.
This paved the way for the return of Pak Pong Ju. In August 2010, he became the First Vice-Chairman of the Light Industry Department of the Party and reclaimed the position of Premier in 2013.
Reappointed amid yet another crisis surrounding the nuclear program, Pak has held the position ever since. Kim Jong Un era-economic reforms began before the return of Pak Pong Ju, but they continue under him.
New on-the-spot guidances?
Until 2011, the Rodong Sinmun had not reported on an “on the spot guidance” by any official apart from the Supreme Leader since February 1967. In February 2011, this tradition was broken. Since then, the newspaper has begun to report “on-the-spot surveys” (현지료해) by members of the Politburo Standing Committee.
This was a new formula, as back in 1967 the newspaper would have reported on the “visit of comrade Pak Kum Chol.” “On-the-spot survey” is an obvious reference to the “on-the-spot-guidance” (현지지도) – this is how visits by the Supreme Leader are described.
Only the Standing Committee members are entitled to conduct “on-the-spot surveys,” with all three above-mentioned officials having used this privilege, although Kim Yong Nam did it only once.
What changed in 2011? While we do not know for sure, it is possible that the change came with the revival of the Standing Committee as an institution in 2010, with Kim Jong Il agreeing to give these officials a somewhat special place in the state discourse.
This triad of the highest Party officials is rather an unusual one. These three people do not appear to share any common background, career tracks, views, or agenda. It can be said that they are the top officials in the Party (Choe Ryong Hae), state (Pak Pong Ju), and parliament (Kim Yong Nam) after the Supreme Leader. While this scheme looks good, it should also be noticed that this may be just a coincidence – before his downfall, Hwang Pyong So was one of the top men in the army, but not the KPA’s unquestionable leader.
Yet the common trait between the three is that none is new to North Korean politics. By 1984, when Kim Jong Un is believed to have been born, Kim Yong Nam was already a Politburo member, Choe Ryong Hae was a Vice-Chairman of the Youth League, and Pak Pong Ju was an alternate member of the Central Committee.
When the young Kim came to power, many expected him to start a generational change in the elite. Almost seven years since he took power, one can clearly say this was not the case.
While Kim Yong Nam, befitting a professional diplomat, seems to stay away from conflicts at the top, other members of the elite appear to actively compete among themselves for the Supreme Leader’s favor.
Unlike the Soviet Politburo, the Standing Committee is not the ruling council of the nation, but rather an inner circle of top advisers to Kim Jong Un. Each can be dismissed at Kim Jong Un’s whim and they could not dismiss the leader even if they wanted to.
Looking at this footage of the trio shown when the Supreme Leader departed to Singapore, it seems understand their place perfectly well.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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