The fifth session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) convened on April 11, 2017. The annual (sometimes semi-annual) gathering of the DPRK’s parliament was mostly business as usual. With the exception of re-establishing a foreign policy-focused panel within the SPA’s structure, there were no major policy announcements and minimal personnel switches. However, the changes that were announced suggest a stronger commitment by Kim Jong Un to gradually restoring the strength of the state.
The fifth session dealt mainly with two routine items: 1) the Cabinet’s proposed plan for the North Korean government for the next year; and 2) a budget report that includes the previous year’s performance and growth expectations for the next year. In his report, Premier Pak Pong Ju noted that the activities and accomplishments of the DPRK Cabinet during 2016 “made a breakthrough toward accomplishing the five-year strategy for national economic development.” The fifth session included an additional report on the status of the “Implementation of the Total 12-Year Compulsory Education” law which was passed in September 2012. Nearly half of the SPA session’s discussion focused on the education law.
This part of the SPA agenda was an opportunity for the DPRK leadership to announce progress in implementing Kim Jong Un’s two signature domestic policies. Some Pyongyang watchers might argue that Pak and other senior DPRK government officials sugarcoat their reporting. However, the DPRK Cabinet has a tendency in official reports to own and admit its failures and problems executing policies. Kim Jong Un also has not been shy to critique senior officials. But that did not happen in this session, suggesting that, at least with respect to domestic policy, Kim is taking longer-term view in achieving his goals.
The SPA performed some housekeeping within its Presidium, or standing committee, which carries out the same functions of promulgating laws and making government personnel decisions between the convocation of full SPA sessions. Former Chairman of the Union of Agricultural Workers of Korea Central Committee Ri Myong Gil and former SPA Vice Chairman and long-time head of inter-Korean relations Kim Wan Su were removed from the Presidium “due to transfer to other posts.” Ri was replaced on the SPA Presidium by the head of the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea, Jang Chun Sil, while Kim was replaced by Democratic Front for the Reunification of Korea Committee Presidium Member (and former President of the DPRK Central Court, among other positions) Pak Myong Chol. This personnel shift was an even exchange in which one Workers’ and Social Organizations official and one inter-Korea relations official were replaced.
Two personnel changes in the DPRK government were also authorized during the 13th SPA’s fifth session. Jang Pyong Gyu was replaced with former party guidance official Kim Myong Gil as director of the Central Public Prosecutor’s Office. Jang was also removed from office as head of the SPA Legislation Committee, but a replacement was not announced. Interestingly, state media coverage noted that Jang was “dismissed” but not “transferred.” Jang Pyong Gyu met the same fate as his predecessor who disappeared six years ago. Given this history and the public return of Minister of State Security General Kim Won Hong, Jang was likely the scapegoat for a series of problems in the DPRK’s internal security apparatus and removed from office.
Finally, Jang Kil Ryong was appointed Minister of Chemical Industry, replacing Ri Mu Yong (who held on to his positon as a DPRK Vice Premier.) This is the second time during the last year in which a Vice Premier retained that position after being removed from his ministerial position. This pattern of personnel appointments suggests that a senior cohort of the Cabinet is gradually being created and tasked with long-term planning and deliberation in key policy areas.
New Committee Established
The most notable agenda item at the fifth session of the 13th SPA was the establishment of the SPA Diplomatic Commission, which is effectively a new name for the SPA Foreign Affairs Committee. The SPA revived the committee chairman’s position in 1989, appointed a full panel during the first session of the 9th SPA in May 1990 and abolished it during the first session of the 10th SPA in September 1998.
The SPA Diplomatic Commission is headed by Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Vice Chairman for International Affairs Ri Su Yong, who is also a member of the State Affairs Commission, the country’s supreme state organ. The institutional affiliations of the committee’s membership is similar to that of the prior two incarnations of the SPA Foreign Affairs Committees with a cross-section of personnel involved in various aspects of external affairs: the Foreign Ministry, foreign trade, inter-Korea relations, cultural exchange and Workers and Social Organizations.
The immediate effect of reviving the committee is that it gives Ri Su Yong an institutional hat to wear in order to interact with foreign government officials. As the party’s International Affairs Vice Chairman, he has been restricted by protocol to interacting with representatives from foreign political parties. Ri can also utilize this position to attend the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in the South. There is a good possibility that other SPA Diplomatic Commission members might travel outside the country or expand their interactions with foreign government officials.
The SPA Diplomatic Commission was probably revived with an eye on improving inter-Korea ties with the next government in Seoul. Given the functions of the SPA’s two other panels, it could promulgate some foreign policies through a subsequent SPA session or the SPA Presidium. Until then, it should be viewed as a placeholder organization that provides the institutional means through which other DPRK officials can increase their interactions and exchanges with foreign governments.
In contrast to the 7th Party Congress and the 13th SPA’s fourth session, which reorganized North Korea’s power organizations, the fifth session was rather unremarkable. That said, it does have one fundamental implication in the context of other structural and personnel moves during the last two years: Kim Jong Un seems to be vesting power back into government (state) institutions. While he strikes some observers as being short on policy accomplishments (except for those involving nuclear weapons or space) he is gradually resetting the North Korean political system in favor of incrementally building back up state institutions.
 “5th Session of 13th SPA Held,” KCNA, April 11, 2017.
 Pak Pong Ju has been in office four years, a term of service longer than his two predecessors who more or less held three year terms. Taken with his prior stint as DPRK Premier, Pak has held the top spot in the DPRK Cabinet for a total of seven years. During an April 15 parade marking Kim Il Sung’s 105th birth anniversary, Pak was positioned next to Kim Jong Un on the parade reviewing platform. Nominal DPRK head of state Kim Yong Nam sat out the parade with other elderly senior officials. This bit of stage management subtly established Pak Pong Ju as the DPRK’s real head of government.
 Ri Myong Gil may have been appointed to a position in the WPK Agricultural Department which was re-established during 2016.
 Kim Wan Su currently serves as Chairman of the North Side Committee for the Implementation of the June 15 Agreement.
 Pak Myong Chol has held a number of senior positions in the regime including as head of the court system, the DPRK’s representative to the International Olympic Committee, the Minister of Physical Culture and Sports and as an NDC Councilor.
 Ri Kil Song was removed from office after institutional changes to the Ministry of People’s Security and the DPRK Central Prosecutor’s Office
 It built on the 2010 appointment of the late Kang Sok Ju, elevated as a Vice Premier with a foreign policy portfolio. This was one of the first institutional and personnel moves undertaken when Kim Jong Un assumed power. The first DPRK Vice Premier elevated in such fashion was Kim Yong Jin, who was previously Chairman of the Education Commission. Nine months after this personnel move, the SPA promulgated the 12-year compulsory education law.
 DPRK Vice Premiers who do not hold concurrent ministerial positions but hold broad policy portfolios are In Chol Ung (railways), Ri Ju O (consumer goods and light industries), Kim Tok Hun (machine industries) and, whenever he resurfaces, Kim Yong Jin (education).
 “CPRF Vice Chairman Han Si-hae Interviewed,” by Chong Yon-chun, Hangyore Sinmun (in Korean) May 30, 1991. In this interview, Han identified himself as a member of “the Supreme People’s Assembly Diplomatic Committee” which at that time was called the “Foreign Affairs Committee” in DPRK state media.
 The SPA first introduced a Foreign Affairs Committee during the second session of the second SPA in October 1959 then abolished it at the fifth SPA in 1972 as part of government reorganization.
 “Ho Tam Speaks at Party,” KCNA, November 15, 1989.
 “State Leadership Elected,” Pyongyang Domestic Service (in Korean), May 24, 1990.
 Also known as Ri Chol, Ri Su Yong is one of Kim Jong Un’s mentors and has held terms of service as DPRK Foreign Minister and for over two decades was the DPRK’s Ambassador to Switzerland and the UN Mission in Geneva.
 The SPA Foreign Affairs Committee consists of Ri Su Yong, Ri Ryong Nam (DPRK Vice Premier), Ri Son Gwon (Chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country), Kim Jong Suk (Chairwoman of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries), Kim Kye Gwan (1st Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs), Kim Tong Son (Vice Chairman of the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea) and Jong Yong Won (Youth League Central Committee Secretary).