Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea, has appointed a de facto second-in-command in January to support the county’s ruling Worker’s Party of Korea; these reforms have changed the way power is distributed in a dictatorship dependent on control.
The additional role, “first secretary” was a title Kim held from 2012 to 2016 and although the individual who possesses this title is still unknown, the role will likely change the power structures within North Korea’s leadership. Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based member of International peace organization The Stimson Center, stated “It means no change to [Kim’s] status as the supreme leader of North Korea, but it will mean a change in his leadership style.” The new position was included in January as part of a revision to the rules of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK), the communist political party that rules the reclusive country.
This position could be occupied by Jo Wong Won or Kim Tok Hun, both powerful political figures who are long-running members and some of Kim Jong-un’s most trusted allies. Both individuals have stood in place of Kim Jong-un in chaired meetings and official visits across the country.
The position creation is unlikely to be linked to the insecurity of Kim Jong-un’s health, which was speculated last year after he went unseen from state media and international view for several weeks. The director for North Korean Studies at Sejong Institute, Cheong Seong-chang stated that Kim may be gradually becoming comfortable providing others with more power because he is so confident in his cabinet’s loyalty and his own grip on power. While these reforms allow for more power to be spread across the individuals leading the dictatorship, the humanitarian crises within North Korea and its seclusion from the rest of the world are only continuing to grow.
The Biden administration’s North Korea Policy review is nearing completion, and there is growing concern amongst advisors that the policy could centralize on previous US efforts to change North Korea’s behaviour through more isolation and external pressure. The approach incorrectly assumes that North Korea, a nation that has no reliance on international allies, will yield to coercive tactics. The United States and other countries need an alternate strategy on how they interact with the unstable and nuclear-armed North Korea.
They should maintain goals of denuclearization while maximizing opportunities and channels for interacting with the North Korean government and the individual in the new position of “first secretary”. More interactions on governmental and non-governmental levels can help both sides clarify respective ideas, build mutual trust and reduce miscommunication. Over the past two years, decisions made by President Trump and Biden such as travel bans and a decrease in engagement as reinforced North Korea’s perception of US hostility and justification for developing nuclear weapons.
Decades of neglecting North Korea and not pursuing security interests have never played to international benefit, and most countries’ simple and sensationalized portrayal of North Korea has diminished the space for dialogue. In order for more governmental reforms and changes in the distribution of power in North Korea, communication and dialogue needs to continue. North Korea has been open to academic and scientific exchanges before as they strengthen two-way sharing of knowledge.
By ignoring changes in North Korea’s distribution of power, international governments miss the opportunity to open channels of dialogue that can aid the nation in becoming more receptive to outside knowledge and possible support for the citizens bearing the burden of the regime.