North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party named Kim Jung-un its first secretary on Wednesday. The position replaces that of secretary general which, in good family tradition, the young ruler’s deceased father Kim Jong-il will hold “eternally.”
Kim’s grandfather and founder of the dynasty, Kim Il-sung, is remembered as the people’s republic “eternal president.”
In his new capacity, Kim Jong-un has become a member of the presidium of the Politburo, the executive branch of the North Korean government. He already commands the armed forces and is assumed to wield far more power than the remaining four members of the body that nominally rules the country.
Jang Sung-taek, Kim’s uncle who is considered a power behind the throne, was simultaneously elevated to full membership of the Politburo. Jang occupies a number of key positions. As the director of the party’s Administration Department, he oversees the security services. After Kim Jong-il’s death, he appeared in uniform for the first time despite his lack of military experience. It was likely a sign of his further rise within North Korea’s bewildering government structure where state, party and army positions often overlap and intertwine.
Another key player in Kim’s shadow is Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho. Between 2003 and 2009, he commanded the defense forces around the capital of Pyongyang, a prestigious post that put him at the heart of the North Korean military apparatus. The next year, he was elevated to the presidium of the Politburo and named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. He subsequently appeared in Kim Jong-il’s company on a number of public occasions, signaling his role as a shepherd of Kim Jong-un’s ascendancy.
Also a member of the Politburo’s presidium now is Choe Ryong-hae, recently promoted to the rank of vice marshal but really a party apparatchik.
Like Ri, Choe is considered one of the young Kim’s “guardians.” If Ri was supposed to shield him from a challenge from the generals, Choe’s role may be that of party power broker.
Kim now firmly sits atop both the army and party structures bit given the North’s penchant for secrecy, it is impossible to tell whether he actually controls them too.
That is not to say that Kim’s position is insecure. Far from it. Kim Il-sung’s heir gives a face to the regimize and legitimizes it in the eyes of ordinary Koreans who have been brought up believing in the almost mythical proportions of the Kim dynasty’s powers.
Whatever intrigue is occuring behind the scenes (if there is), the North Korean regime is internally stable and unlikely to collapse as the result of backstabbing, let alone a coup.
Threats emanate from abroad. China is increasingly irritated by its client state’s unpredictable and seemingly erratic behavior but there is order in the North’s chaos. It considers Japan and South Korea mere puppet states of the United States’ which would like to see the regime replaced by one that cares rather more for its own people. In playing up the threat of “imperialist” American intervention, Pyongyang intentionally tumbles from one crisis into another to justify spending an eyewatering share of its resources on military spending. “Military first” was Kim Jong-il’s dogma and there’s no reason to assume that will change now that his son is in power.