I will attempt to answer this question here. I have to warn readers though — this column will be largely a scholastic exercise, as Kim Jong Un had supreme power before and after the revision, and the situation has not changed since December 19, 2011 when it was announced he had taken the reigns of power after the death of his father.
The origins of this dispute come from a misunderstanding of what ‘head of state’ really means.
Presidential republics are rare these days, and in a parliamentary republic or a constitutional monarchy there are usually two top positions: the prime minister, who runs the country, and the president/monarch/governor-general, who is largely responsible for ceremonial duties but in some extreme cases may be expected to intervene in national governance.
The latter is usually considered the ‘head of state,’ which led to a not-that-uncommon perception that the head of the SPA Presidium is the ‘head of state’ of North Korea – this powerless man who meets newly appointed ambassadors doesn’t look that different, from, say, the Governor-General of New Zealand.
Yet was and is Kim the head of state? And if he was, did anything change after the revision? Let’s have a look at the DPRK’s constitutional history.
THE LETTER OF THE LAW
When the DPRK was founded, Kim Il Sung’s state position was that of a Premier (수상), and, according to the 1948 Constitution, “The Premier is the head of the Government of the DPRK.”
It did not, however, define who the head of state was, which naturally gave the birth to the idea that the head of the SPA Presidium was the head.
As the Great Leader’s ego grew, Kim Il Sung decided that this needed to be fixed.
He was first called “the head of state” by foreigners — a strange but also strangely consistent pattern — in a signed message from the people of Congo-Brazzaville, published in the Rodong Sinmun on June 16, 1968.
Kim Il Sung was referred to as the head of state more and more frequently as time went on, until when in December 1972 the DPRK adopted the new Constitution which directly stated that “the President of the DPRK is the head of state and represents the state sovereignty of the DPRK.”
This article survived the 1992 revision of the Basic Law, but just two years later Kim Il Sung was dead.
Only the 1972 and 1992 Constitutions explicitly mentioned that the state position of the ruling Kim – the President of the DPRK – is that of “head of state”
Kim Jong Il did not step into his father’s shoes after his death. He only kept the positions he had received under him – that of the Chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) and of the People’s Army’s Supreme Commander.
Kim Jong Il was not the President – and thus, constitutionally speaking, not the head of state. But none of the four Vice-Presidents were either. The position was left vacant.
In 1998, the new Constitution stipulated that “the NDC is the supreme organ of military guidance and the organ which administrates the entirety of the national defense” and that “the NDC of the DPRK’s Chairman commands and leads the entirety of the Armed forces and organizes the defense of the nation.”
While Kim Il Sung was proclaimed the Eternal President, references to this position were erased from the Constitution’s main body. Thus, like back in 1948, the Constitution did not define who the head of state was.
Only in 2009 did the Constitution state that “The NDC of the DPRK’s Chairman is the Supreme Leader of the DPRK.” Notably, the ‘head of state’ was not mentioned again.
The same definition was retained for the positions Kim Jong Un held – that of First Chairman of the NDC and of the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission.
In summary: only the 1972 and 1992 Constitutions explicitly mentioned that the state position of the ruling Kim – the President of the DPRK – is that of “head of state.” From 2009, this position was called the “supreme leader.”
However, the Constitution never defined anyone else as “head of state,” and for all intents and purposes it has always been the current Kim.
DOES IT EVEN MATTER?
This is naturally a question one should ask. There is an unhealthy tendency to see all Constitutional revision in the DPRK as very meaningful – while in fact the Basic Law is not that important in a country ruled by Kim Jong Un’s decrees.
The truth is that these revisions are mostly meaningless. However, if the new procedure concerning foreign envoys requires Kim’s signature on a document, he’s more likely to actually look at it.
Thus, there is a chance that the Supreme Leader will spend somewhat more time thinking about ambassadors now. That’s all.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
The latest revisions to the North Korean Constitution have us asking 'who is the head of state?' again. Is it Kim Jong Un? Is it Choe Ryong Hae, the head of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly?I will attempt to answer this question here. I have to warn readers though -- this column will be largely a scholastic exercise, as Kim Jong Un had supreme power before and after the
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.