North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has taken the title of general secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party during its latest congress. His assumption of the post, which came at the sixth-day session of the party’s eighth congress in Pyongyang on Sunday, suggests his ever-tightening grip on power.
The general secretary title was previously held by Kim’s late father Kim Jong-il. Since Kim took over following his father’s death in 2011, the North has called Kim Jong-il the “eternal general secretary” of the party. His late grandfather and founder of the totalitarian state, Kim Il-sung, has been referred to as its “eternal president.”
For the past decade, Kim has ruled the North with the title of party chairman. Though he has kept control of the reclusive regime, taking the general secretary title has an important symbolic meaning as the move can be seen as placing him in the same status as his late father’s. Some observers here predict Kim may go further to assume the title reserved for his late grandfather when the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North’s rubber-stamp parliament, convenes later this month.
The crowning of Kim as party general secretary comes as Pyongyang’s propaganda machine praises him for building up the North’s nuclear arsenal, while Kim has admitted to a catastrophic failure in meeting the impoverished state’s economic goals.
In his opening address at the party congress, he said the results of a five-year economic development drive, which ended last year, “fell extremely short of our goals.” Describing the past five years as the “worst of the worst” times for the country, Kim called for self-reliance to boost its strength.
In the ensuing sessions of the congress, the North emphasized the importance of enhancing its defense capabilities, with Kim vowing to bolster its nuclear arsenal to confront the US, which he described as the country’s “foremost principal enemy.”
Kim said the North’s geopolitical features called for pushing ahead with the reinforcement of its nuclear arsenal without interruption for the “welfare of the people, destiny of the revolution, existence and independent development” of the state.
This approach will only deepen the hardships of the North, which faces a triple whammy of the fallout from floods, a protracted border closure due to the coronavirus pandemic and US-led international sanctions imposed on the recalcitrant regime for its nuclear arms and ballistic missile development programs.
Kim now may feel more of a need to resort to the authority borrowed from his father and grandfather to keep the dynastic dictatorship. But it would be difficult for him to permanently consolidate his authority, if he fails to pull the impoverished state out of its prolonged predicament that has pushed the lives of its 25 million people to the brink.
The way out could only be found by opting to discard its nuclear arsenal and unshackle the North from the international sanctions crippling its economy.
The reshuffle of the party apparatus during its latest congress reflects Kim’s will to stick to his confrontational and self-reliance approach.
The positions of key officials involved in relations with the US and inter-Korean matters appear to have been lowered. North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, for example, was demoted to become an alternate member of the party’s central committee from a regular member amid an impasse in nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
With cross-border ties chilled, the North has abolished the position of party secretary in charge of handling issues with South Korea.
It comes as a surprise that leader Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, was dropped from the list of members of the party’s powerful Politburo. Speculation had risen that she would be promoted to a higher position, as she appeared to have undertaken a prominent role in inter-Korean affairs and other key fields.
But it is too early to say her political status has weakened. She might just be stepping aside while Pyongyang is waiting to see what concrete steps the incoming US administration will take toward the recalcitrant regime.
It is notable that five military figures have been appointed as Politburo members.
With the North continuing to reinforce its nuclear arsenal, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s push for a peace agenda through measures to pander to the Kim regime appears increasingly senseless. What is regrettable is that Moon and his aides cannot be expected to depart from their illusory pursuit of inter-Korean reconciliation until Moon ends his five-year tenure in May 2022.