Kim Yo Jong threatened to scrap a military agreement signed with Seoul and pull the plug on other inter-Korean projects. Photo: AFP

In February 1974, North Korea-watchers abroad read in Nodong Shinmun, the Workers’ Party newspaper, an editorial entitled “Let the Whole Party, Nation and People Respond to the Call of the Great Leader and the Appeal of the Party Center for Grand Construction Programs of Socialism.”

Quite a mouthful, but it eventually turned out that the editorial had coincided with the Central Committee’s unannounced endorsement of Kim Jong Il’s selection as eventual successor to his father, Great Leader Kim Il Sung, who was the president and the party general secretary and was about to turn 62.

From then for six years until Kim Jong Il was publicly designated as successor in 1980, the term “Party Center” was a tease often employed by the regime’s media – a hint that someone, who would not yet be identified by name or normal title, was deeply involved, along with the named and titled ruler, in running the country.

So what does it mean that, this past Friday, the same newspaper brought back the teasing term after four decades of non-use? Has someone – most likely first sister Kim Yo Jong – been non-publicly named to serve as the right hand of current, not terribly healthy looking ruler Kim Jong Un and become his designated replacement in case of Kim’s untimely death?

If so, is that just a routine dynastic precaution dealing with the fact the 36-year-old Kim Jong Un has no son who’ll be old enough to rule anytime soon? (Some reports say he has a 10-year-old son.)

Or is Kim, as speculation and rumor periodically suggest, seriously ill, perhaps terminally?

While we needn’t jump to extreme conclusions, it would be a mistake to minimize the importance of the regime’s revival of a term so pregnant with meaning.

As transated by Tara O of the East Asia Research Center, the new Nodong Sinmun article emphasizes the need to rally around “Dear Marshal” Kim Jong Un and then says, “There is no power in the world that will block our proletariat’s move forward that advances [earlier than planned] the tomorrow of shiny fatherland prosperity by going together in ideology, intent and action with the Great ‘Center of the Party.’” 

O quotes North Korea watcher Yoo Dong-yeol, president of the Korean Institute of Liberal Democracy, as pointing out: “They could’ve said ‘Central Party Committee'” – but instead chose the non-collective, historically very individual term.

Kim Jong Il

Shortly before Nodong Sinmun‘s 1974 first use of the term Party Center, the Central Committee, meeting in September 1973, had elected Kim Jong Il to membership in the party’s elite Politburo and named him party secretary for organization and guidance – the extremely powerful post that his uncle and erstwhile rival Kim Yong Ju had held.

Thenceforth Kim Jong-il “was not merely number two in the power hierarchy,” high-ranking defector Hwang Jang-yop recalled later. “This is what sets him apart from his uncle Kim Yong Ju.”

The Party Center’s power was far greater than his uncle had ever wielded. From 1974, said Hwang, “even the most insignificant report could not reach Kim Il Sung without going through Kim Jong Il first, and none of Kim Il Sung’s instructions could reach his subordinates without going through Kim Jong Il first.”

Without knowing all that, foreign analysts pondered the question of who or what might be the mysterious “Party Center,” so prominently singled out in the 1974 editorial. Clues began to appear.

In February of 1975 Pyongyang television showed Kim Jong Il voting in local elections right behind Kim Il Sung and Kim Il, the next-ranked figure among active members of the elder, ex-guerrilla generation, who was not related by blood to the other two similarly named Kims. Voting order had been for decades a strong hint of rank in any communist country.

In 1975, Kim Jong Il’s portrait started to appear alongside his father’s in public places – but still the code term “Party Center” was used and his name was rarely heard in public. In March of 1976 the term was upgraded to “Glorious Party Center.” An official announcement the same year finally made clear the junior Kim’s position in the party secretariat.

North Korean leader Kim Il Sung (L) and his son and successor-designate Kim Jong Il (R) inspect a football ground in Pyongyang in 1992. The senior Kim died in 1994 and Kim Jong Il decreed three years of mourning. Photo: AFP / KCNA VIA KOREA NEWS SERVICE / HO

Although he had received the official nod, Kim Jong Il with his father’s help was still in the midst of what would prove a very long process. On the one hand the Kims had to win support for the succession plan among key officials suspected of harboring skepticism. 

On the other, they had to root out any leading officials bold enough to dare to oppose the scheme overtly – along with cagier officials who might be biding their time, disguising their strong opposition while awaiting the elder Kim’s death as their cue to move against his son.

Kim Jong Il mobilized relatively young people to help him. Totally in charge of propaganda for the party starting in 1973, he commanded the newly formed Three Revolution Teams – North Korea’s answer to China’s Red Guards. He and his loyalists pushed aside older figures, many of whom were purged for alleged incompetence or insufficiently “revolutionary” attitudes.

But age was no barrier when he sought allies for his machinations, and he also teamed up with selected members of the old guard. Rivals, chief among them his uncle and half brother, bit the dust.

The curtain lifts

It was May of 1980 before an on-the-record acknowledgement to the outside world of the plans for Kim Jong Il’s future came from a spokesman for North Korea. Meeting journalists at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Choe U Gyun, editor of pro-Pyongyang newspapers published in Tokyo, attacked what he called the Western mass-media view that the younger Kim’s accession to power would be a case of “hereditary” succession.

“We understand hereditary succession normally means takeover of power by foolish, spoiled offspring,” Choe said. But he termed Kim Jong Il “a brilliant leader. He is possessed of excellent leadership qualities in terms of policy decision-making. Not only that, he is possessed of moral integrity worthy of an excellent leader. He is endowed with unrivaled leadership capability over economic affairs, political affairs, cultural affairs and over even military affairs.”

Choe extended the catalog of virtues of the junior Kim even further, piling on the sort of praise long associated with Kim Il Sung himself as he listed such a blinding array of qualities as to make dissent by ordinary mortals unthinkable. He focused especially on Kim Jong Il’s artistic achievements.

The Pyongyang Art Theater Troupe was then visiting Tokyo, Choe noted. Among its members, “many of those musicians and dancers, magicians and jugglers received the personal guidance of Kim Jong Il.” The younger Kim even invented a system of notation for prescribing the dancers’ movements, Choe said. “He’s also an excellent film director – maybe something like Hitchcock but of a different genre. Lenin is credited with fostering and training and inspiring Russian novelist Gorky, but Kim Jong Il is doing a similar job.”

Attending that briefing, I attempted to listen respectfully and keep a straight face during Choe’s recital of Kim Jong-il’s virtues. I found it a bit much, though, and finally I could not resist asking, irreverently, whether the junior Kim could juggle and dance at the same time. Choe did not answer directly, but said simply that a great composer is never the best singer, and that Alfred Hitchcock, although a great director, was never a great actor.

By the time of the sixth party congress in October of 1980, Public Security Minister Li Jin Su was able to announce: “In the course of our struggle against the anti-revolutionary elements, the extremely few antagonistic elements were completely isolated.” Next, he said, the regime would rally the public and “shatter” those “antagonistic elements” – presumably the opponents of the succession plan.     

A party congress provided a rare chance for Pyongyang-watchers abroad to catch up on the relative rankings of officials. One interesting change: Kim Song Ae, Kim Il Sung’s official wife and the mother of Kim Jong Il’s younger half brother and erstwhile rival Kim Pyong Il, was demoted from number 67 on the 1970 party Central Committee membership list to number 105 in 1980. Pyong Il had gone to Europe the previous year to begin a diplomatic career.

Kim Jong Un

Fast forward to North Korea’s next succession. Kim Jong Un seems never to have been given the mystery title Party Center, perhaps because things moved far more rapidly. One day he was a 27-year-old son starting to learn the family business and the next day (December 17, 2011) his father was dead and it was his turn to take over.

Kim Jong Un, not quite 28, salutes beside the hearse carrying the body of his father and late leader Kim Jong Il at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, December 2011. Photo: AFP /KCNA

Some aspects of his succession were more difficult, especially the fact that he had far less time to develop relevant experience before he had to go on stage as the boss.

Other aspects were easier. There was no need to persuade the rest of the country’s elite class that hereditary leadership was the way to go. That decision had been made permanently with Kim Jong Il’s elevation. Also there were no real internal rivals for the job. Kim Jong Il’s main contribution had been to consolidate one-man, no-questions-asked rule in the person of the leader. That and shameless flattery of his father had gotten him the succession nod.

Kim Yo Jong

What about now? Kim Yo Jong, who is most likely to be the one referred to as Party Center, appears to have had some experience already in serving her brother Kim Jong Un in the sort of gatekeeper role that Kim Jong Il filled for his father.

In this photo released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on May 2, Kim Yo Jong assists her older brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with a ceremony to mark the completion of Sunchon phosphatic fertilizer factory in South Pyongan Province. Photo: AFP / STR / KCNA VIA KNS

At age 32, she is also first vice director of the party’s United Front Department, which handles relations with South Korea including propaganda operations and espionage and management of front organizations. It is she who in recent days lambasted Seoul for permitting anti-North Korean elements to send balloons laden with propaganda leaflets across the border.

“I feel it is high time to surely break with the South Korean authorities,” she said over the weekend. Did you get that “I feel”? A Party Center would feel entitled to phrase it that way, in terms of personal desire.

A Party Center would also feel entitled to speak of her personal power: “By exercising my power authorized by the Supreme Leader, our Party and the state, I gave an instruction to the … department in charge of the affairs with [the] enemy to decisively carry out the next action,” she warned.

Kim Pyong Il, the 65-year-old half brother beaten out for the top job by Kim Jong Il in the 1970s, is reported to have retired from the diplomatic service and returned home. But although I and other Pyongyang watchers have mentioned him as a possible successor to Kim Jong Un, we don’t see him now showing power by standing up and issuing remarkably belligerent statements like Kim Yo Jong’s.

Kim Pyong Il (L) in his youth wanted to be the model for the statue on the right but elder half-brother Kim Jong Il (R) beat him out as successor to Kim Il Sung (C). Photo: AT combo / Twitter

In fact we hear nothing from him. At least one report has described him as under house arrest, and that seems plausible.

Quite a few commentators had been skeptical that a woman could become the successor in notoriously male-chauvinistic North Korea. What better way for the regime to check that hypothesis and combat the style of thinking behind it than to crown a woman anonymously as the “Party Center” and let people get used to the idea of her exercising great power?

If that’s what’s happening, sooner or later we’ll see inflation in her non-anonymous titles. First vice director is not a problem right now, as that typically is the title of the person actually running the show – with directorships going to elderly front men.

Yo Jong is also an alternate member of the Politburo (unless – and you heard this speculation here first – she already received an unannounced promotion to full membership during its meeting last week).

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, some passages from which are excerpted in this article.