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Delegation of power by Kim Jong-un a show of confidence: experts

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (KCNA-Yonhap)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s reported decision to delegate part of his authority to his younger sister Kim Yo-jong and other key aides should be seen as a show of confidence, affirming the leader’s grip on the country, rather than a sign that he has health problems or has chosen his sister as his successor, experts here said Friday.

The National Intelligence Service on Thursday told lawmakers in a closed-door meeting that Kim Jong-un appears to have transferred some of his responsibilities to others, putting Kim Yo-jong, the first vice director of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, in charge of policy toward South Korea and the US. 

Pak Pong-ju, vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission, and the new premier, Kim Tok-hun, are overseeing economic policies. Choe Pu-il, who handles military affairs for the party’s Central Committee, and Ri Pyong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the party and the person at the helm of the North’s missile and nuclear weapons development, have been entrusted with handling military affairs. 

The agency, denying that the leader has any serious health issues, added that the move was intended to reduce Kim’s stress levels and enable him to deny culpability in the event of future policy failures.

Jeong Se-hyun, former unification minister and current executive vice chairperson of the presidential National Unification Advisory Council, said Kim Jong-un’s move is an expression of his confidence as well as a change in his way of ruling the regime. 

“The health problem is the media’s interpretation, and as far as the NIS has determined, Kim has no health issues,” Jeong said during an interview with local broadcaster KBS on Friday. “It is an expression of Kim Jong-un’s confidence. The authority is not only given to Kim Yo-jong, but the leader has dispersed power among four people: Kim Yo-jong for policy toward South Korea and the US, Pak Pong-ju for the economy, Choe Pu-il for the military and Ri Pyong-chol in charge of strategic weapons development. 

“It’s a change in the ruling system of the country,” he said. 

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, echoed a similar stance -- that the move is intended to share responsibilities, not to cede authority. 

“North Korea is a country under a one and only leadership system, and Kim is in still in charge,” Yang said. “The move could be seen as part of Kim Jong-un’s political management tactics, by granting authority and responsibilities to officials in the areas of economic, social, military and foreign affairs. This shows that Kim has a grip on power in the country and his system is stabilized. If he didn’t have confidence, how could he ever assign responsibilities to others?” 

Other experts agreed, with one North Korea specialist stressing that the North is taking a systematic approach to governance by dispersing responsibilities among experts in each area at a time when the country is facing many challenges -- the COVID-19 pandemic, flood damage and ongoing international sanctions. 

“In the beginning, when Kim Jong-un had no experience in managing state affairs, he took charge of everything by making many public appearances. But now, he is entrusting responsibilities to the experts in each area, for more efficiency of governance and to relieve political risk,” Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, told The Korea Herald. “He has implemented a system where the deputies in charge of each area will report the issues to him. But the final decision is made by Kim Jong-un.”

Another expert emphasized that power sharing is part of Kim’s management strategy for high-ranking officials to achieve his goal of an economic recovery.

Kim on Thursday made a rare admission, according to the North’s state-run media -- that the North’s economy was failing due to “internal and external reasons” and the ruling Workers’ Party would convene a congress next year to unveil a five-year economic plan. 

“The North’s situation is difficult, as he admitted during the meeting of the party’s Central Committee,” Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far East Studies at Kyungnam University, told The Korea Herald. “Kim is clever, and he knows in order to achieve his stated goals, he has to efficiently manage high-ranking officials. As a result, he has given both authority and responsibility to the officials for them to carry out the goals.” 

The NIS also said it believes Kim Yo-jong, who has played an increasingly visible role in the North recently, is serving as the “de facto second in command,” but stressed that the leader hasn’t chosen a successor yet. 

In response to speculation that the younger Kim might be the heir apparent of the reclusive regime, experts expressed skepticism. 

“The term second in command is not appropriate, and it is not allowed in North Korea’s ruling system as there is only one leader,” said Hong. “Due to the special nature of Kim Yo-jong’s relationship with the leader, she could be seen from the outside as the second in line, but it shouldn’t be interpreted as her being the apparent successor.”

“Kim Jong-un has given authority to Kim Yo-jong because she is his blood relative who can be trusted,” said Lim. But the term second in command refers to the successor of the country. It is too early to identify Yo-jong as the heir apparent.”

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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