A new official North Korean position has been added just a hair under the top on the personnel chart and whoever is tapped for it may be seen as second in command to Kim Jong Un, according to an unnamed source cited by South Korea’s Yonhap News.
The person likely to be named to the position, Yonhap’s source says, is Jo Yong Won, 63 – who has rocketed up in the hierarchy since 2015 and on that basis seems perfectly positioned for such a role.
If Yonhap has got it right, the appointment hands considerable additional authority to a man who lately has owned the role of Kim’s tiger disciplinarian – and at a time when disciplining and controlling the population, high and low, appears to have become the regime’s top priority.
Before we expand on that, here’s a cautionary note abut interpretation of this reported development: Second-in-command at this point doesn’t necessarily or even probably equate to designated successor.
Far more likely is that naming Jo to be Number Two would be intended to help prolong the life of the obese, seriously health-challenged Kim Jong Un while Number One’s young children grow up so that one of them can succeed him.
Can you think of anyone who has been mistakenly pronounced dead more often than Kim?
Another just-published Yonhap story, which points out that he hasn’t been seen in public for more than three weeks, is a reminder of his mortality that’s sure to set off further speculation along those morbid lines. How many analysts will now claim that Jo is really taking over as Number One from the unseen dear departed?
But the Kim regime is a family dynasty and nothing I’ve seen suggests that Jo has the bloodline that would qualify him to take over. Nor is there any indication he has been in competition with someone who is a family member: Kim Jong Un’s sister Yo Jong, whom many analysts have called Number Two.
The first sister could remain hugely powerful but less involved than Jo in day-to-day management of the regime. While it’s barely within the realm of possibility that she’s out, we’ve seen no sign that she is.
Instead, one unconfirmed recent report (from a US-government-funded outlet, but one whose reporting in my experience has not leaned toward fake news but rather focused on finding the truth and conveying it to North Korean listeners) said she had been using her authority to have people hauled off and shot if she didn’t like their looks.
Similar is the case of the sister’s father in law, Choe Ryong Hae, son of the long-ago North Korean vice president Choe Hyon.
Ryong Hae has a rude nickname (Ryong Du – ask a Korean to translate or check out chapter 11 of my book; this is a family newspaper) to show for the childhood and youth he spent as a leadership-compound neighborhood pal of Kim Jong Il.
Choe served Jong Il throughout the latter’s career as North Korea’s second ruler and, after Jong Il died, served as mentor to the very young and no-doubt bewildered third leader.
Choe, now past 7o, may very well keep his ranking of Number Two at least in some sense. Watch and see if he continues to meet foreign dignitaries in his role as president of the Supreme People’s Assembly.
The holder of that title has traditionally carried out the ceremonial duties of a head of state, enabling the ruling Kim to avoid tiring himself with such chores.
Now, about the new guy, whom I have dubbed Kim’s tiger disciplinarian: Jo Yong Won was very impressive in one episode I recounted late last year, when the problem was rampant and vicious sexual abuse by members of the privileged class.
He nailed (with bullets) the bad guys. This sort of serious enforcement of the rules was rewarded around New Year’s, when he received an earlier, big promotion.
But Kim Jong Un clearly is concerned with a broader set of problems than just the many members (the majority, I’m tempted to say) of his own elite followers’ class who make him look bad.
His own hopeless economic policy – guns not butter – is what’s really ruining what little is left of the Kim brand, and he looks to be getting desperate to avoid serious pushback from various classes of people inside his closed country.
The Seoul-based news organization DailyNK, which specializes in extracting news from the self-isolated North, has recent examples of the regime’s self-perceived need for the work of a disciplinarian here, here and here. Read the articles and weep, for the people of that benighted country.
Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.