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North celebrates 7 years since Kim Jong-un’s rise

Apr 10,2019
As it gears up for the first plenary meeting of its newly-elected rubber stamp legislature on Thursday, North Korea kicked off celebrations of the seventh anniversary of Kim Jong-un’s ascension as the country’s supreme leader on Monday.

According to a report from the Korean Central News Agency, one of the North’s state mouthpieces, workers and members of the country’s only official labor union gathered at the Central Hall of Workers in Pyongyang to commemorate Kim’s ascension to the top posts in the country’s Workers’ Party and state, which it called “a great auspicious event to be specially recorded in the national history.”

Kim was made first secretary of the party at a plenary meeting of the North’s unicameral legislature, the Supreme Peoples’ Assembly (SPA), on April 11, 2012, and was promoted to chairman of the National Defense Commission two days later, thus taking over all titles held by his father, the country’s former leader Kim Jong-il.

At the fourth plenary meeting of the previous SPA session in June 2016, the North officially replaced the National Defense Commission with the State Affairs Commission as the “supreme national guidance organ of state sovereignty” in its Constitution. This change was largely interpreted as part of Kim Jong-un’s attempt to veer away from his father’s Songun, or military-first, policy by putting other national concerns - chiefly the economy - front and center in his state agenda.

Though the SPA only gathers twice a year and authority is delegated to the Presidium of the Politburo of the Workers’ Party when it is in recess, its conventions have been used as occasions for the country to announce major policy directions and changes to its governmental structure.

This is why the upcoming first meeting of its new session on Thursday, which will introduce deputies that were newly elected in last month’s elections, is anticipated to where Kim formally announces his next step on the country’s denuclearization process amid a stalemate in its talks with the United States.

Since Kim’s summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, fell apart in late February, the North recently restored a missile launch pad on its western coast that it used to test intercontinental ballistic missiles in the past and has threatened to end its moratorium on nuclear tests. The North has so far not taken any actions, likely out of concern that they could endanger the ongoing diplomatic processes. There have also been signs that Kim could soon visit Russia.

Another notable possibility for Thursday’s meeting is a restructuring of the country’s formal leadership in line with Kim’s stated drive to make it a “normal country.”

While Kim Jong-un’s status as state council chairman is defined in Article 100 of the Constitution as equivalent to the supreme leader of the country, the country’s head of state in matters of foreign affairs rests with the President of the Presidium, which has long been Kim Yong-nam, who is now 91. The SPA could decide on Thursday to adjust the formal authority between the two positions to elevate Kim Jong-un as the single head of state in all matters both domestic and foreign, thus legitimizing his engagement with leaders like Trump and Moon on an official level.

A top official in South Korea’s Unification Ministry on Tuesday said that Kim would likely assume a new position, and said Seoul would be closely watching Thursday’s events in the North, as will Washington, according to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Friday.

Further substantiating the view that Kim will take on new positions is a recent call to his propagandists last month to move away from mystifying the suryong - North Korea’s title for Kim Il Sung - and depict its leaders “in a humanly way.” This order to tone down his god-like portrayal suggests that Kim may be elected to a new position by deputies in a manner more in line with political systems in other countries.

Yet an effort by the North to formalize the status of its supreme leader suggests that Kim’s domestic legitimacy has been hurt by the failure to reach a deal with the United States in Hanoi, while sanctions continue to choke its economy. According to a source familiar with internal affairs in the North, Pyongyang recently imposed a gag rule related to the Hanoi summit to its workers engaged in trade abroad, telling them that “all decisions will be made by the party on its own.”

The regime is usually sensitive to its citizens showing interest in politics or diplomacy, and recent rumors of the summit’s failure allegedly circulating inside the country, particularly in border regions with China, appears to have taken a toll on Kim’s image of infallibility as supreme leader, prompting him to revise his portrayal.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]