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Stellar rise of NK leader’s close aide

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, accompanied by Jo Yong-won (far right), makes an on-site visit to a machinery factory in Pyongyang in this 2016 file photo. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, accompanied by Jo Yong-won (far right), makes an on-site visit to a machinery factory in Pyongyang in this 2016 file photo. (KCNA-Yonhap)

Jo Yong-won, newly appointed secretary of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party in North Korea, was in the spotlight during the latest key party meeting, which ended last week.

The 64-year-old strongly rebuked senior officials -- some of whom are older than him -- for their “passiveness and self-protectionism” in setting policy goals, and warned that the party will not tolerate those who neglect their duties, according to the party’s official newspaper Rodong Sinmun. This all occurred while North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was in attendance, sitting at the table beside him.

Jo’s new job as the secretary in charge of supervising party organs and personnel matters does entail disciplining officials, but doing it so openly is a reflection of his newfound rise in power, observers say.

At the eighth party congress last month, Jo was appointed to the five-member presidium of the Politburo, the party’s top policymaking body, to which Kim Jong-un also belongs. Jo, who was previously an alternate member of the Politburo, skipped a rank to make it into the country’s most elite group of five, all within a year. He also became a member of the party’s formidable Central Military Commission.

“With the latest reshuffle, Jo’s formal ranking could be the third in the country, after leader Kim and Choe Ryong-hae, president of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a fellow at the Wilson Center. “And in terms of actual influence, Jo could be more powerful than Choe.”

But that doesn’t mean Kim Jong-un’s influential younger sister Kim Yo-jong is out of the picture, he stressed. Kim Yo-jong is still believed to be the second-in-command who can wield authority at any time, despite her recent removal from the Politburo.

Jo’s rise was quick, but wasn’t entirely unexpected, experts say. He was already part of the party’s powerful Organization and Guidance Department -- which is responsible for implementing the leader’s directives, ideological censorship and staffing. But he was elevated in rank, giving him more official authority now.

 Long believed to be one of the dictator’s closest confidants, Jo has been spotted near Kim Jong-un on many occasions.

Less is known about Jo’s background, other than that he was born in 1957 and began accompanying Kim’s inspection tours across the country in 2014. He reportedly graduated from Kim Il Sung University with a degree in physics. 

According to the Unification Ministry, Jo is the one who has accompanied the leader most often in recent years during his so-called “field guidance” trips. In the last four years, Jo was with the leader on 131 occasions -- 34 in 2017, 51 in 2018, 34 in 2019 and 12 in 2020. He was often spotted in pictures alongside Kim taking notes.

Dubbed “Kim’s shadow” by local media outlets, Jo was seen lurking behind corners during the historic inter-Korean summits in 2018 and the US-North Korea summits in Singapore and Hanoi as well. He was seen whispering in Kim’s ears during the seventh party congress in 2016, and kneeling down beside him to talk to him at the latest eighth party congress.

“Jo is the closest of the close aides to Kim, who has official duties but probably has unofficial roles as well,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. “He took care of each of Kim’s pet projects and major policies from A to Z, and knows the ins and outs of the leader and the party system.”

Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who is now a South Korean lawmaker, picked Jo in 2017 as one of the most influential people in North Korea, adding that what is shown in the media is not the full story of the power dynamics inside the reclusive regime.

Jo’s rise came as leader Kim is focusing on solidifying the party rule system as a way to take control of the military, government institutions and the people, according to Cho Sung-ryul, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy.

“Kim viewed Jo, who took charge of personnel matters within the party and knows the officials well, as the suitable figure to carry out his policies and tighten the party’s discipline,” said Cho.

His promotion is also a reflection of generation shifts within the party, observers say.

Pak Pong-ju, 82, former premier of North Korea, retired during the latest party congress, with Jo taking over his Politburo seat.

Choe Pu-il, 77, stepped down from his role as department director handling military affairs at the party, with O Il-jong, 67, replacing him at the latest party congress.

By Ahn Sung-mi (