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N. Korea Reshuffles Senior Officials at Recent Politburo Meeting

2021-07-08

ⓒ KBS

North Korea convened an extended meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party on June 29, only eleven days after the third plenary session of the committee. During the latest politburo meeting, leader Kim Jong-un accused key officials of neglecting their duties in carrying out measures to fight the pandemic, holding them responsible for causing a grave incident in ensuring the security of the state and the people. He went as far as to dismiss some of the high officials, saying that now is the time for a revolution in personnel administration before a solution to economic problems. 


Here is Cho Han-bum, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, to explain the background for North Korea’s recent personnel changes. 


The Workers’ Party in North Korea has convened its congress eight times so far. The eighth congress was held in January this year and the seventh one took place in 2016, 36 years after the previous such event. The party’s Central Committee holds meetings between the party congresses to make important decisions. There are about 250 committee members, including alternate members. A politburo meeting is attended by key officials of the committee, while an extended politburo meeting involves the politburo members and senior officials from major organizations. It seems that the recent politburo meeting carried out a major personnel reshuffle involving the party and the country’s top leadership. 


As a matter of fact, the current difficulty faced by North Korea stems from structural problems including its reckless nuclear weapons development and subsequent sanctions as well as its border shutdowns to combat the pandemic. In this situation, Kim Jong-un is tightening his grip over senior officials and shifting the responsibility for the internal crisis on to them. 


With a serious look, Kim Jong-un pointed out the wrongdoings of officials handling anti-epidemic measures at the recent politburo meeting. He criticized them for neglecting their duties and causing a grave incident surrounding anti-virus efforts. But he did not mention exactly what the grave incident was, spawning various speculations. 


The report about the politburo meeting uses terms related to quarantine measures only three times, but words about top officials appear as many as 39 times. First of all, it is doubtful that North Korea’s quarantine conditions worsened all of a sudden. Even if there are some problems in anti-virus efforts, such a massive personal shakeup wouldn’t be necessary. The plenary session of the party’s Central Committee ended on June 18. 


It is very unlikely that something extremely critical happened in the country to lead to the major personnel changes in just ten days. Rather, it seems the leader used the lack of COVID-19 prevention efforts as an excuse to strengthen control over the officials. During the plenary meeting of the party’s Central Committee, Kim acknowledged a food shortage in the country. Food prices have actually soared lately. Some speculate that North Korea made a failed attempt to release military’s emergency food reserves to address the food problem. I think that’s probable, although it has not been confirmed. 


It seems the politburo meeting tested and criticized senior officials, while pressing some of them to take responsibility. At the same time, several officials seem to have been replaced. Specifics about the personnel changes were not revealed. But judging from video footage of the Korean Central TV, analysts assume that key military figures such as Ri Pyong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the party, and Pak Jong-chon, chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, were among those who were dismissed. 


While others raised their hands to vote during the politburo meeting, Ri and Pak did not, with their heads down. The seat of Choe Sang-gon, a party secretary and director of the science and education department, remained empty. It is assumed that those three officials were sacked. Both Ri and Pak are military figures, meaning that they were not in charge of quarantine measures. If they did something wrong, it could be related to military rice reserves. 


Ri Pyong-chol is one of the five members of the politburo’s standing committee, along with leader Kim Jong-un, chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly Choe Ryong-hae, secretary for organizational affairs of the party Jo Yong-won and premier Kim Tok-hun. 


Among them, Ri seems to be the only person who has been dismissed. 


Jo criticized other officials during the politburo meeting, while reports on July 6 indicate that Kim visited economic sites for a field inspection. Choe also seems to have kept his position, as he reportedly presided over a plenary meeting the Supreme People’s Assembly’s standing committee lately. 


Jo Yong-won is considered an influential figure, while Kim is nominally in charge of the economy and Choe is believed to be just a figurehead. Choe and Kim continue to engage in official activities. So, it appears that only Ri was subject to the personnel change involving the politburo standing committee. Ri, a marshal in the Korean People’s Army, gained recognition for his contribution to North Korea’s strategic weapon program. Leader Kim Jong-un and Ri were seen smoking together at a public place and the leader even gave a piggyback to him. 


During the early years of his rule, Kim Jong-un executed many military figures. But he hasn’t purged high officials lately, as he has consolidated his power base to some extent. But the recent purge or dismissal of key officials may indicate that Kim is faced with some sort of crisis in his tenth year of office. 


This year, Kim Jong-un has officially admitted to internal problems such as economic failure and food shortages, while reprimanding officials from time to time. Now that a member of the powerful politburo standing committee has been removed from office, North Korea may carry out a drastic personnel reshuffle down the road, taking issue with officials’ misconduct. 


At the politburo meeting, North Korea said that it would thoroughly investigate various issues at the party level and devise legal countermeasures. Given that, large-scale personnel shakeups or even purges are anticipated. 

The power structure of the Kim Jong-un regime has been formed. But internal problems are beginning to surface, partly due to international sanctions and strict quarantine measures to fight the pandemic, and policy measures do not produce the intended effect. Against the backdrop, North Korea puts the blame on officials and censures them, while controlling the general public by cracking down on the so-called “non-socialist and anti-socialist” behavior. That is, the regime maintains its power through strict internal control, which will continue unless the country’s structural problems are resolved. 


North Korea is likely to focus on domestic issues for the time being. But it may take some action to get closer to China on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the China-North Korea Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty on July 11. North Korea is committed to promoting friendship with China, while engaging in a war of nerves with the U.S. We’ll have to wait and see how North Korea’s next move may influence regional diplomacy. 

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