A more traditionally attired Kim Jong Un in action during the January's KWP Congress. Photo: KCNA/AFP

SEOUL – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has taken on the grandiose title of General Secretary of the Korea Workers’ Party, but his sister, Kim Yo Jong, appeared to have suffered a double demotion as a high-profile party Congress drew to a close.

This has puzzled North Korean watchers, many of whom believe that the younger sister is next in line to the throne.  But given the opacity implicit in Pyongyangology, the fall in title does not necessarily mean a loss of power or role. Indeed, the younger sister was on form on Wednesday morning, unleashing a verbal tirade against South Korea via state media.

Experts suggest that a less visible and more important reshuffle was the removal of economic czar Pak Bong Ju from the party’s Executive Committee.

Given that Pak was the key individual behind North Korea’s marketization over the last decade, and given the heavy verbiage paid in the Congress toward “self sufficiency” – essentially, a pivot away from Chinese imports – this suggests Pyongyang is turning the economic clock backward to a more centrally controlled model.

The avowed aim of the Congress was to review the five-year economic plan set at the last Congress in 2016, and set the next plan. Minimal detail was revealed in that sphere, although it was made clear on the very first day of the gathering that previous economic plans had largely failed.

For the wider world, most particularly the incoming Biden administration, the greatest import of the Congress was the announced upgrades to the North Korean military.

A long wish list of upcoming capabilities was revealed, including a super-large hydrogen bomb, tactical nuclear weapons, hypersonic missiles, a nuclear-powered submarine, improved drones and even a military reconnaissance satellite.

These various capabilities, expected to take 5-10 years to develop, confirm that North Korea will continue to sacrifice its economy on the altar of its military.

They also suggest major tests will be required, granting the North political leverage in the Biden era. The new assets, on top of North Korea’s extant nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, are also potential bargaining chips if denuclearization negotiations restart. 

(A detailed Asia Times breakdown of the announced military capabilities can be read here)

Kim Jong Un and his younger sister Yo Jong during a 2018 inter-Korean summit. Photo: AFP

Big brother up…

Even though he is clearly the man in charge in North Korea, the most eye-catching promotion was that of Kim Jong Un himself.

Addressed simply as “The Marshal” or “The Young Marshal” when he assumed power in a reflection of his military background, Kim subsequently adopted the title of chairman of the State Affairs Commission. That body is essentially Kim’s personal brain trust and state-affairs secretariat.

North Korean watchers do not believe the new position of General Secretary of the Party – which had remained empty following the death of the previous title holder, Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011 – was a gift from the party, even if the party gave its seal of approval.

“Of course, some sycophant might have come out with the suggestion but no sane official would suggest something that the top leader might not like,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University told Asia Times. “And it was up to Kim Jong Un to reject it.”

Indeed, suggesting the adoption of the title could have been considered disrespectful or dangerous, given that it had been used by Kim Jong Il. “Kim Jong Un’s decision to promote himself demotes his own father,” who continued to hold the title even after his death, Lankov said.

Another theory has it that it reflects the younger Kim’s more collective leadership style.

“The biggest difference between Kim Jong Un and his father, is that his father used divide-and-rule tactics:  Under Kim Jong Il, there was no such thing as inter-ministerial dialog, it was compartmentalized; he held one-on-one meetings,” said Kim Sung-hak, a North Korea researcher  at Hanyang University.

“But Kim Jong Un holds Politbureau meetings, holds KWP Congresses, he brings together policy proposals from all ministries.”

Or, the title adoption could be a signal, suggested Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “It could mean they are finally preparing to build a cult of personality around Kim, which the regime has refrained from all this time,” Go said.

While Kim is venerated around the country, he has not, so far, been physically immortalized in ubiquitous statuary, portraits and even lapel pins, as his father and his grandfather are.

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, outspoken despite an apparent demotion. Photo: AFP / Jorge Silva

…little sister down

Kim Yo Jong, Kim’s younger sister, was not so lucky in the reshuffle, suffering a double demotion.

She took a fall in her ministerial rank at the party’s Agitation and Propaganda Department, to “vice department director” minister, down from her previous role as “first vice department director.” She also dropped from being an alternate member of the Politbureau to being a member of the party’s Central Committee.

In North Korea’s leadership system, below the supreme leader, there are essentially five ranks: Alternate member of the party’s Central Committee; member of the Central Committee; alternate member of the Politbureau; full member of the Politbureau; and member of the Permanent Committee of the Politbureau.

Prior to the Congress, there had been widespread predictions – which generated some false news reporting – that she would be promoted to full Politbureau membership.

Many North Korea watchers, including Lankov and Go, admitted their surprise.

Still the reduction in title does not mean a reduction in her role as key aide (and possible successor) to her brother, as well as the regime’s point figure on South Korean relations. North Korea watchers noted the prominence of her seating during the Congress and on Wednesday, with the Congress ended, she issued a strongly worded editorial in state media, attacking South Korea.

In it, she criticized the South Korean military for tracking a possible military parade in Pyongyang, calling them idiots.

“News of her demotion came out, but she has not really been demoted, she is still number two,” said Go. Referencing her editorial he noted, “She is still assuming the role of the attack dog of the regime.”

Go speculated that the demotion of the biggest Seoul-basher in Pyongyang could be an indication of a more accommodating policy toward Seoul, going forward.

“North Korea knows Biden will be more hardline towards North Korea than Trump, so North Korea could approach South Korea as an insurance policy,” he said.

It is possible that Kim might even have proposed her own demotion.

“World media has begun to talk of her as a successor way too much, and that is not good for the system and Kim Jong Un probably does not like it,” said Lankov, who believes that the latter was seriously ill for three months of 2019. “She could have felt insecure, and I don’t think she wants to be seen as a rival.”

Party politicking underway at the 8th KWP Congress in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: KCNA/AFP

It’s the economy, stupid

While the title changes of Kim and his sister grabbed headlines, a more substantive reshuffle came further down the pecking order. Pak Bong Ju, the regime’s long-term economic policy chief, was retired.

“Pak was the face of marketization in North Korea, I give him a lot of credit for financing North Korea’s spending when they exploited the commodity boom – iron and coal exports to China – that allowed North Korea to earn so much money,” Go said.

Pak is believed to be behind the relaxation of state control over semi-legal  gray markets – which now operate openly – that replaced the failing state distribution system and enabled a consumer boom in Chinese imports.   “There was a massive expansion of consumption of things like TVs and cellphones and that has raised the standard of living,” Go said.

The downside was a chronic trade deficit with China. “Marketization did not pan out as Kim Jong Un expected, so he is holding the one in charge responsible,” said Hanyang’s Kim.

Now, facing a triple whammy – heavy global sanctions implemented in 2016-2017; the virtual halt of trade with China due to border closures necessitated by the Covid-19 epidemic; and a range of natural disasters, such as typhoon and flooding – the North Korean economy, hardly a star performer before, is in serious trouble.

This was made clear on the first day of the Congress, when Kim – who, in his first-ever public speech in 2012, had promised his people that they would never again have to “tighten their belts” – admitted the failures of the previous five-year plan with surprising frankness.

The Congress’ official purpose is the preparation of a new five-year plan. But what that plan consists of is far from clear, despite the Congress being the longest held since 1970.

Tracking the phraseology used during the Congress, Go noted that “self sufficiency” was a key buzzword, suggesting a continuation of the current emphasis on light manufacturing. In an import substitution strategy, North Korea has, in recent years, been investing in light industry that produces consumer goods for the local market.  

Kim Jeong-min, a journalist with specialist Seoul-based media NK News, agreed that there was little detail to be found.

Speaking at a webinar on Tuesday, Kim said that modest construction plans – for 15,000 new homes in Pyongyang and 25,000 homes to replace those lost to 2020’s typhoons – had been made public. The regime is also planning on developing the abandoned South Korea- built tourism complex at Mount Kumgang.

Pak Bong Ju walks a step behind Kim Jong Un in a file photo: Image: Twitter

There was also continued emphasis on heavy industry, and repeats of cliched slogans for better socialist planning, better execution, and improvements in quality and quantity. The main message Go took away was of a return to a more interventionist economic model than the market-friendly policies of the Pak years.

This likelihood appears to be fortified by Pak’s replacement. Jo Yong Won is a close aide to Kim who is frequently mentioned in North Korean media. He often accompanies the latter during his on-site inspections, and was a vice-director at the powerful internal party secretariat, the Organization and Guidance Department.

The dearth of economic planning information could reflect the gravity of the current situation, which many consider the worst since the famine-struck early 1990s. Some experts estimate that the North Korean economy has shrunk by almost 10% this year.  

It could equally indicate a near-total lack of good options for the future. “It is unclear how they can make substantial improvements,” said NK News’ Kim.

“They have yet to release the resolutions of the party congress,” Hangyang University’s Kim stated, calling the non-disclosure “unusual.”

The researcher believes that the only way North Korea can overcome its crisis by revving up its economy is by re-opening its border to China, but until and unless it secures Covid-19 vaccines, that looks impossible.

The country has signed on to the WHO’s Covax vaccine, but has rejected South Korean vaccine aid offers.