About the Author
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
UPDATE AT 1630 KST: This article has been amended to reflect Choe Son Hui’s changed position.
North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) in a meeting Thursday replaced and promoted several of the country’s top state officials and approved the state budget for the coming year, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and ruling party daily the Rodong Sinmun reported today.
In a move that represents part of a major political reshuffle for the country, lawmakers were reported to have appointed a new Premier of the Cabinet and President of Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) Presidium.
The decision came at the First Session of the 14th SPA held at Pyongyang’s Mansudae Assembly Hall, just a day after the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).
In a meeting not attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, recently-elected SPA deputies reportedly discussed four key topics, including the election of the chairman of the State Affairs Commission (SAC) and “of state leadership bodies.”
Also discussed was “modifying and supplementing the Socialist Constitution,” and plans for the execution of the state budget for 2018 and the projected budget for 2019.
Although state media reported that constitutional amendments were under discussion, no further details were provided.
CHANGES IN THE SPA
Thursday’s parliamentary meeting saw Kim Jong Un re-elected as chairman of the SAC — in a vote in which, notably, the DPRK leader was referred to by the new title of “supreme representative of all the Korean people.”
Longtime top official Choe Ryong Hae was also elected president of the Presidium of the SPA, replacing Kim Yong Nam, a veteran of North Korean politics at 91-years-old, in a role often referred to as representing North Korea’s titular head of state.
Choe previously served as the SAC’s vice-chairman as well as director of the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the WPK Central Committee and as a member of the standing committee of the politburo.
“Choe Ryong Hae’s already high standing in the leadership hierarchy has been further bolstered, given his promotion to first vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission, a new title the North has created during this SPA,” Minyoung Lee, an analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said.
“In that vein, Choe’s new role as SPA Presidium president may signal a change to the SPA Presidium’s powers, which will be reflected in the DPRK constitutional revision.”
Yang Hyong Sop — who also had held the position as vice-president of the Presidium of the SPA since September 1998 — was also replaced by Thae Hyong Chol.
Thae was elected to the politburo on Wednesday, having served as president of Kim Il Sung University and minister of Higher Education. Choe San Gon was appointed his successor in that role during Thursday’s parliamentary gathering.
A CABINET RESHUFFLE
Pak Pong Ju, in turn, stepped down as head of the Cabinet, having served in the position since 2013 — though he will likely retain significant power following his re-election Thursday as a vice-chairman of SPA.
He was also on Wednesday elected as a vice-chairman at the WPK Central Committee.
Kim Jae Ryong was listed as his replacement as Premier.
He was also elected to the politburo, as well as the party’s Central Military Commission, at Wednesday’s fourth plenary meeting, having previously served as chairman of Jagang Provincial Party Committee.
Analyst Minyoung Lee cautioned against reading Pak’s new position as representing a demotion, however.
“North Korea gave former Cabinet Premier Pak Pong Ju another confidence vote by reelecting his as SAC vice chairman, after electing Pak as vice chairman of the exclusive party Central Committee Executive Policy Bureau during the April 10 party plenum,” she said.
“This suggests that Pak retains his party Political Bureau member title, if not his Political Bureau Presidium member title as well.”
STATE AFFAIRS COMMISSION
Choe Ryong Hae was also appointed as the first vice-chairman of the SAC, which appears to be a newly-created position.
Two high-profile diplomats — foreign minister Ri Yong Ho and chairman of the SPA Foreign Affairs Committee Ri Su Yong — were also re-elected to the SAC.
First vice-minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui, was, notably, elected to the SAC for the first time, as well as being newly-elected as a member of the SPA’s foreign affairs committee.
Former first vice foreign minister Kim Kye Gwan’s name was removed from the committee, suggesting he has been demoted.
The elections of several figures closely linked to North Korea’s recent rapprochement with the U.S. “indicates that Kim Jong Un intends to maintain that policy,” analyst Minyoung Lee said.
“While this likely means no immediate reversal back to conducting nuclear and missile tests, it also seems to suggest that Kim Jong Un will stick to his phase-by-phase approach to nuclear negotiations with the U.S.,” she continued.
“Kim’s comments at Wednesday’s party plenum about how North Korea ‘should deal a serious blow to those hostile forces who are frantically misjudging that they can make us cave in through sanctions’ also seems to back this up.”
Other new additions to the SAC are new Premier Kim Jae Ryong, as well as Kim Su Gil, Ri Man Gon, and No Kwang Chol.
Ri Man Gon was also promoted to director at an unnamed Party Central Committee department and a vice-chairman at the Central Committee, as well as elected to the politburo and the party’s Central Military Commission, on Wednesday.
Ri previously served as first vice director of the OGD, and as director of its Munitions Industry Department.
North Korea also appears to have created a new Ministry of Shipbuilding, following the session’s appointment of Kang Chol Gu as minister of a department by that name.
Kim Dong-yub, Director of Research at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, told NK News the key theme of the first day of the SPA session was “state normalization” — an attempt to reframe the DPRK political system as more conventional.
Former titular head Kim Yong Nam did not concurrently serve as the vice-chairman of the SAC, the expert pointed out, contrasting that with Choe Ryong Hae’s new positions.
“But it needs to be confirmed if there will be a constitutional amendment pertinent to it,” he said.
The make-up of the reformed SAC contrasts strongly with the North’s now-defunct National Defense Commission, he added, which did not typically include diplomats.
The new SAC appears increasingly similar to South Korea’s National Security Council (NSC) or the ROK presidential office, he stressed, handling issues including defense, foreign policy, economy, and law and order.
THE STATE BUDGET
Thursday also saw finance minister Ki Kwang Ho present a report on the execution of North Korea’s state budget for 2018 and projected national budget for the coming year.
Ki reported that the North Korean government’s budgeted revenue and expenditure were expected to grow by 3.7 and 5.3% compared to last year.
By increasing its spending on economic construction by 5.4% over the past year, the media reported that this sector will now account for 47.8% of total expenditure.
The defense budget this year accounts for 15.8 % of the total expenditure, the same as last year.
Minister Ki said plans to gather state budget revenue last year were “successfully fulfilled at 101.4%” while the expenditure plan was “carried out at 99.9%.”
Last year saw Pyongyang allocate 47.6% of total spending to the development of the national economy, including in power generation, the metallurgical and chemical industries, and light industry.
The DPRK government also plans to spend 36.4% on social services to improve education, public health, and sports, among others.
The SPA is expected to sit again today, with coverage likely to appear on Saturday morning.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Rodong Sinmun