N. Korean Leader Partly Delegates Power to Sister: Spy Agency
The National Intelligence Service or NIS in South Korea says that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has allowed the so-called “delegated rule.” On August 20, the spy agency said that Kim delegated some of his authority to his close aides. This includes his younger sister Kim Yo-jong, the first vice director of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party. It seems that she has assumed the majority of the authority passed on by her brother. Some say that the move has further reinforced the official status of the younger Kim, who has already administered overall state affairs, including policies toward South Korea and the U.S. The NIS admits that Kim Yo-jong is the de facto No. 2 within North Korea’s power structure but stresses that she has not been chosen as a successor. Here is political commentator Choi Young-il to tell us more about the NIS report.
On very rare occasion, a division of roles or the delegation of power has happened in North Korea. It seems Kim Yo-jong is in charge of diplomatic policies overall, as she has handled issues related to South Korea and the U.S. and reported them to her brother. But the NIS denies that leader Kim Jong-un has any serious issues, including those having to do with his health. It is reported that the leader has also transferred some of his power to other officials. For example, Cheo Pu-il(최부일) now deals with military affairs for the party’s Central Committee, while Premier Kim Tok-hun(김덕훈) and Party Vice Chairman Pak Pong-ju(박봉주) were given authority to oversee the economy. In other words, the officials in charge of each area report their issues to the leader who makes the final decision. Analysts say this indicates an ongoing shift in North Korea’s ruling system.
Meanwhile, the term “delegated rule” mentioned by the NIS has spawned controversy over its appropriateness. The phrase was not mentioned by North Korea, but was created by the South Korean spy agency. Basically, “delegated leadership” is impossible under a one-man dictatorship in North Korea, where the supreme leader is above the party.
The phrase was used in a closed-door NIS briefing to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee. The expression “delegated rule” sounds serious, sparking speculation about an emergency situation in North Korea or Kim Jong-un’s failing health. In fact, the phrase never appeared in North Korean media and could be misinterpreted. It is said that officials didn’t bother to drop the expression since NIS chief Park Jie-won used it. What is happening in North Korea could be seen as the division of roles or power-sharing, rather than delegated rule.
While disclosing the NIS briefing on August 20, lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung from the main opposition United Future Party explained that power-sharing in North Korea was intended to reduce leader Kim Jong-un’s stress levels. Also as a member of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, Ha said that Kim probably wants to ease his leadership strain, having governed the country for nine years now.
Many experts echo the view, saying that Kim is under heavy stress because he has too many things to do himself. They believe he has health problems as he eats, drinks and smokes too much, in an apparent effort to relieve stress.
It is believed that Kim has suffered from a lot of stress stemmed from making decisions about so many problems and taking responsibilities alone in the process of ruling his country for nine years. His health doesn’t look good for his age. That has to do with his excessive drinking and smoking, along with stress. Medical experts also cite other health risk factors like his family history. Although he has not officially made his sister his successor, he may have felt the need to make the ruling structure more stable in case of emergency. Dividing roles or responsibilities could be interpreted in this context.
Some say that the deteriorating livelihoods of North Korean people comprise another reason for Kim’s decision to hand over some of his power to top officials. According to South Korean lawmaker Kim Byung-kee from the ruling Democratic Party, who is a member of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, the prolonged border shutdowns following the COVID-19 outbreak have resulted in foreign exchange shortages and economic difficulties in North Korea. He pointed out that the delegation of some of the North Korean leader’s authority to others is aimed at enabling him to avoid taking all the blame for failed policies.
In fact, Kim Jong-un did admit that his economic policy had been unsuccessful during a plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party Central Committee on August 19. At the meeting, North Korea admitted to the failure of the five-year economic development strategy and announced that the party would hold its eighth congress in January 2021 to establish a new economic plan. It was the first time that North Korea officially acknowledged economic failure since 1993.
North Korea’s five-year plan failed to meet economic growth goals. The North Korean economy is getting even worse lately, due to COVID-19, flood damage and typhoons. It is quite surprising that the top leader admitted to the failure of his economic policy. While he delegated some of his power to others to shift blame for the failed policy, he does recognize that he should take ultimate responsibility. Many analysts see the leader’s rare acknowledgement of the failure as a show of his confidence in the regime’s stable power structure.
As commentator Choi explained, the delegation of authority by Kim reflects his confidence in his grip on power and the management of state affairs, based on his nine-year governing experiences. Some say that it also shows the leader’s trust in his officials.
Unlike his predecessors, Kim Jong-un puts priority on the party and seeks the ruling style of a normal state. The Presidium of the Politburo of the Workers’ Party initially had three members. But two more members-- Kim Tok-hun and Ri Byung-chol—have recently been added to the Presidium, which now has five members. A photo unveiled at the plenary meeting of the party shows the five members sitting side by side, indicating that the leader discusses policies with other officials before making decisions.
Kim Jong-un’s power base is so strong that he still has the final say even if he transfers his authority to others when dealing with political or military issues. His sister has recently noticeably come to the surface recently, but it doesn’t mean she can make decisions on her own. Perhaps, Kim and his sister are simply playing “good cop, bad cop,” respectively. Clearly, the leader’s status is unmoving.
In the past, North Korea was ruled solely by one leader, in line with his decisions and feelings. But the division of responsibilities or power-sharing could be seen as part of a process toward becoming a normal state, so it is regarded as a positive development.
South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young said on Tuesday that a shift from one-man rule to party-led leadership in North Korea is expected to result in the division of roles when addressing relations with South Korea. A change in Pyongyang’s ruling system, namely, power-sharing, may serve as the safety pin in inter-Korean relations.
It could work more favorably to inter-Korean ties. Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump have so far engaged in top-down diplomacy to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, but the negotiations between the two countries have been deadlocked. When the top-down style leaders entrust responsibilities to the experts in each area, the possibility of bilateral working-level contact increases. For South Korea, ministries in charge of diplomacy, the economy and inter-Korean affairs could better communicate with North Korea. South Korean or U.S. working-level officials in each area may have more opportunities to contact with their North Korean counterparts. I imagine that North Korea’s transition to a normal state will hopefully create many advantages.
If North Korea sheds the negative image of a one-man dictatorship, the international community may not see it as a notoriously unpredictable country. The Seoul government should closely examine how the change in the North’s ruling style will influence South Korea and come up with specific and appropriate measures to deal with its northern neighbor.