Kim Jong Un’s Pyongyang Shuffle

Kim Jong Un’s efforts to consolidate power continue 15 months after formally assuming the supreme leadership of North Korea. Evidence of his personal stamp can be seen in a series of senior personnel appointments made at the recent plenary session of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Central Committee held on March 31, 2013, and the 7th session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the country’s unicameral legislature, on April 1.

I. KWP Central Committee Meeting

The KWP plenary session, announced by the Political Bureau five days ahead of its convocation, was held on March 31, 2013. This meeting provided Kim Jong Un an opportunity for personnel housekeeping[1] and was the first shuffle of the Central Committee’s membership since the 3rd Party Conference in September 2010. Under Kim’s direction, personnel changes were made to the Political Bureau, the Central Committee and the Central Committee Departments.

Political Bureau

The first order of business was to elect members of the Political Bureau,[2] the party’s leading collective organization, which directs political, policy and personnel decisions. Political Bureau members are the upper echelon of the North’s political and security elite. Shifts made during the March 31 meeting elevated an official viewed as a reformer while downgrading members of the military faction. Based on the list of Political Bureau members and alternates released after the 4th Party Conference in April 2012, the number of full Political Bureau members has been reduced from 19 in 2012 to 17 in March 2013. After the March 31 meeting, full Political Bureau members now include five from the military/security faction and 12 from the party/government faction. Three key generals were appointed as alternate members, de-emphasizing the role of the military without marginalizing it completely since their predecessors were full members.[3]

The Reformer: Pak Pong Ju

Pak Pong Ju was elected to the Political Bureau replacing Vice Marshal Kim Jong Gak, a member of the military faction. Pak was the Premier (Prime Minister) from September 2003 to April 2007. Pyongyang watchers view him as a major reformer in the DPRK’s political and economic life, particularly since he presided over the implementation of a number of modifications to the country’s economic policies as Premier. In addition, Pak has close political ties to Kim Jong Un’s uncle and aunt—Jang Song Thaek and his wife, Kim Kyong Hui, sister to the late Kim Jong Il.

The Alternates: Gen. Kim Kyok Sik, Gen. Hyon Yong Chol and Gen. Choe Pu Il

Gen. Kim Kyok Sik, who has served as the defense minister since November 2012, was elected an alternate, or candidate member, of the Political Bureau. It is worth noting that the previous two defense ministers served as full members of the Political Bureau. Prior to being minister, Kim was commander of a forward-deployed unit on the controversial inter-Korean maritime boundary—the Northern Limit Line—and was in charge of the units that may have launched the attack on the ROK naval corvette Cheonan and fired artillery shells on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. He also served as military advisor to Kim Jong Il and Chief of the KPA General Staff from 2007 to 2009. Despite an illustrious military career, Kim was denied full membership to the Political Bureau in favor of government and party officials.[4]

Gen. Hyon Yong Chol, the Chief of the KPA General Staff, was also elected as an alternate member of the Political Bureau in contrast to his predecessor, Ri Yong Ho, who was a full member of the Political Bureau and its standing committee, the Presidium. Hyon received his fourth star as a KPA general in September 2010 in the batch of promotions that elevated Kim Jong Un to a general, indicating a close political tie between Hyong and the supreme leader.

Like Hyon, Choe Pu Il was elevated to four-star general (though later reduced in rank) in September 2010 and has both political and personal ties to Kim Jong Un. A member of the KWP Central Military Commission, he was also elected an alternate member of the Political Bureau at the March meeting, replacing Gen. Ri Myong Su.

Party Central Committee Departments

Central Committee Departments formulate and implement the KWP’s political, economic, internal security and military policies; they make or regulate personnel appointments within the party, government and military; they also regulate the DPRK’s press, media and cultural institutions.[5] According to state media, at the March 31 Central Committee meeting, “upon authorization of Kim Jong Un, two department directors were replaced.” One change represents a shift in focus to the DPRK’s commercial economic development.[6] The other creates a new force to shape the public image of the DPRK more in line with the new supreme leader.

Commerce: Paek Kye Ryong

Paek Kye Ryong, previously party chief secretary in Kangwon Province, was appointed to replace Pak Pong Ju as Director of the KWP Light Industry Department. The Light Industry Department is in charge of a network of factories, owned either directly by the party or by Cabinet Ministries, which produce food, clothing and consumer goods. Paek’s previous position was in a province bordering the South Korea; he now directs the main commercial output of the DPRK.

Image Maker: Yun U Chol

Yun U Chol was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the KWP’s daily newspaper, Rodong Sinmun.[7] Yun has long been a fixture in the KWP’s Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD), and his last known position was as deputy director of the Party History Institute.[8] He replaced Kim Ki Ryong, who was appointed editor at the 3rd Party Conference in September 2010. Such a rapid turnover may indicate that Kim Jong Un desires his own appointment for this position, bringing about a new message and image, not one initiated by his late father.

Figure 1. Comparison of the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee in April 2012 and April 2013

II: Seventh Session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly

When the Supreme People’s Assembly convened in its 7th session on April 1, 2013,[9] further clarity was provided on personnel changes made during the KWP Central Committee meeting. The SPA, among its eight agenda items,[10] also made several significant changes. According to KCNA, “some members of the Cabinet were relieved of their posts,” and their replacements were “appointed at the session.” KCNA did not, however, disclose the names of those Cabinet members.

The DPRK Cabinet Premier

Pak Pong Ju was appointed Cabinet Premier replacing the 84-year-old Choe Yong Rim, who despite his age, was very active, conducting dozens of site visits to factories, farms and construction projects as well as taking several trips abroad. Because Pak has a reformer’s reputation,[11] his appointment attracted a great deal of external media coverage.[12] Pak was politically resurrected in the summer of 2010 when he was appointed deputy director of the KWP Light Industry Department, and then promoted to director in April 2012. He is likely to be just as publicly active as his predecessor and his appointment could indicate the DPRK has formulated a long range plan for economic improvements.

The National Defense Commission

Generals Kim Kyok Sik and Choe Pu Il were appointed as members of the National Defense Commission (NDC), the country’s supreme power organization. Gen. Kim is the defense minister, or Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, and was appointed to that post in November 2012. Gen. Choe Pu Il[13] was appointed as the DPRK’s top cop, the Minister of People’s Security, in February 2013. These appointments reflect the continued strengthening of Kim Jong Un’s influence since both are close supporters.

Secretary General of the Presidium

Hong Son Ok was appointed as the SPA Presidium’s Secretary-General, the first female ever to hold that position. She previously served as the SPA Vice Chairwoman and as the Vice Chairwoman for the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Both jobs allowed Hong frequent contact with foreign delegations and travel abroad.[14] While Secretary-General is a largely ceremonial position, her appointment may point to a new emphasis on women as key players in the DPRK’s relatively male-dominated political culture. Her public profile might compare to the public duties of Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, who has greeted diplomats and other foreigners based in Pyongyang on at least three occasions. Additionally, Hong’s experience with foreign relations may represent a shift toward international openness of a different sort from the past.

Figure 2. The Korean Workers’ Party Political Bureau as of April 2013


Kim Jong Un continues a trend begun during his first year in office, replacing senior officials elevated by his father and appointing his own people to senior positions in the party and government. This new batch of personnel appointments show Kim flexing his political muscle, independent of his father’s influence. Important developments in this round of appointments are:

  • The election of a well-known reformer as a full member of the Political Bureau and subseuqnetly as Premier. While Pak Pong Ju’s appointment probably does not mean major policy reforms can be expected in the short-term, it does show that the DPRK intends, over the long term, to modify its economic policies and attempt to expand its foreign trade relationships. In short, Pak can be expected to plant the seeds which will eventually bloom into major policy modifications.
  • The appointment of three senior military and internal security officials as alternate, not full members of the Political Bureau as their predecessors were. As a result, the KPA’s role and influence in the affairs of the party and government have been siginficantly reduced. This most likely represents the party’s reassertion of control over the military.
  • The appointment of Hong Son Ok, as the first female Secretary-General of the SPA Presidium, which may indicate a new openness on the part of the leadership, and an attempt to transcend the predominant patriarchy of the past.

These personnel appointments make a great deal of sense in the context of Pyongyang’s declarations during the March 31 KWP Central Committee meeting and 7th Session of the SPA on April 1 that its economic policy will be modified by introducing systemic reforms while also continuing the development of nuclear weapons. This approach contradicts conventional wisdom that the DPRK cannot simultaneously develop both, although it may find it difficult to achieve these goals given financial and trade sanctions. Nevertheless, these appointments appear to be important steps in moving key economic development projects and production away from the control of the military to the party and government.

[1] “Report on Plenary Meeting of WPK Central Committee,” Korean Central News Agency, March 31, 2013; “Kim Jong Un Guides Plenary Meeting on 31 March,” Korean Central Broadcasting Station and Korean Central Television, March 31, 2013.

[2] The KWP Political Bureau used to be elected by the KWP Central Committee, however during the March 31 meeting, changes to the Political Bureau were made prior to changes of the members and alternates of the Central Committee.

[3] A member of the Political Bureau is enfranchised to vote on policy and political affairs, while an alternate has no vote and attends Political Bureau meetings as an observer.

[4] Michael Madden, “Biosketch of Gen. Kim Kyok Sik,” NK Leadership Watch.

[5] Central Committee Departments used to operate under the KWP Secretariat, but they are now technically subordinate to the Central Committee.

[6] According to DPRK state media’s report on the Central Committee meeting: “Forces should be directed to agriculture and light industry, key fields in building an economic power to improve and put on a stable

basis the people’s l iving standard at the earliest possible date.” KCNA, March 31, 2013; KCBS/KCTV, March 31, 2013 (op.cit.).

[7] Despite the fact that news items, editorials, essays and photographs that appear in Rodong Sinmun are subjected to the editorial and censor scrutiny of the Publications Guidance Bureau (controlled by PAD), the newspaper is considered one of the Central Committee Departments.

[8] “More Remains of Martyrs Buried,” Korean Central News Agency, September 6, 2008.

[9] “Seventh Session of 12th SPA of DPRK Held,” Korean Central News Agency, April 1, 2013.

[10] Items for ratification by the SPA included “amending and supplementing some contents of the the Socialist Constitution,” “adopting the DPRK Law on the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun,” “adopting the ordinance of the SPA of the DPRK ‘On Consolidating the Postion of Nuclear Weapons State for Defense,’” and “adopting the decision of the SPA of the DPRK ‘On Setting Up the DPRK State Space Development Bureau.’” The SPA also heard a report on the work of the DPRK Cabinet during 2012, tasks for 2013 and reports on the budget during 2012 and establishing the budget for 2013.

[11] “Reinstatement of ex-Premier Suggests Succesion Process Underway,” Mainichi Shimbun, August 15, 2010 in Japanese, Open Source Center.

[12] From 1994 to 1998, Pak was Kim Kyong Hui’s principal deputy when she served as director of the KWP Economic Policy Inspection Department. From 1998 to 2003, Pak served as Minister of Chemical Industry, until he was appointed to his first term as Premier in 2003. He was removed from office in April 2007. A self-made, modest man, by Pyongyang standards, when Pak was removed from office in 2007, “it is said that his belongings that were taken out of the Premier’s residence did not even fill up one small truck…this frugality…spoke well [of him].” (Mainichi Shimbun, August 15, 2010.)

[13] “N. Korea appoints new security chief,” Yonhap News Agency, April 1, 2013; “Comrade Choe Pu Il, Alternate Member of the Political Bureau,” Rodong Sinmun, April 1, 2013 in Korean, Open Source Center.

[14] “DPRK Delegations Leave,” Korean Central News Agency, March 29, 2012; “China’s National Day Marked,” Korean Central News Agency, September 29, 2011.

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