Is Kim Jong Un Really Claiming Overall Leadership On The Korean Peninsula?

(Photo: Uriminzokkiri)

There is much excitement about a supposed new title recently bestowed on Kim Jong Un: a leader hardly lacking in titles already. On April 11, at the first session of the newly ‘elected’[1] 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), Choe Ryong Hae—another man of many titles[2]introduced Kim as “the supreme representative of all the Korean people.”

That precise phrase seems to be new. The word “all” raised eyebrows. Understandably, some took this as a literal claim to leadership of the entire peninsula, not just the northern half. Such pretensions are unlikely to go down well in South Korea, as media duly reported.

Among those adopting this interpretation is Ruediger Frank. Indeed, he deemed this important enough to flag up in the very title of his latest, as always excellent, analysis for 38 North of the recent SPA session overall and its main outcomes. For him, Kim’s new title is nothing less than “an open claim to leadership on the Korean Peninsula” and thus “a political bombshell”: a “break with the past [which] openly challenges the role of South Korea and its president.”

While it is indeed, Frank says, “the major long-term strategic goal of Kim Jong Un to achieve a unification of the Korean Peninsula under his leadership,” to declare this out loud is new, surprising, and “a huge challenge to ROK President Moon Jae-in.” Frank adds that apparently “Kim …feels very confident that he does not need Moon’s help as a mediator anymore.”

Don’t Shoot the Mediator

The last sentence is certainly correct. In his own long and hard-line speech to the SPA a day later, Kim sneered at “the south Korean authorities” who “pose as a meddlesome ‘mediator’ and ‘facilitator’ as they busy themselves with foreign trips.” This on the very day Moon flew back from Washington, after his latest effort to revive the peace process. As Kim well knows, it was Moon’s mediation which got him his initial summit with Donald Trump.

Ungratefully, and perhaps unwisely, Kim does now appear to be ditching Moon. But is he really claiming to usurp him as well? Much as it chimes with Pyongyang’s new coldness, there are reasons to doubt this particular interpretation of Kim’s new ‘title.’

First up, is it even a title? DPRK media have used it just once, quoting Choe Ryong Hae as cited above. But read in context, it is more of an explanation or a gloss. Choe was formally proposing Kim for the DPRK’s supreme executive post—which of course he already holds—as Chairman of the State Affairs Commission (SAC). The phrase in question isn’t actually applied to Kim, but used to describe what the SAC Chairman is. Here is the passage in full:

When Deputy Choe Ryong Hae courteously proposed the SPA to elect Kim Jong Un as chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the post of the supreme representative of all the Korean people and the supreme leader of the Republic, in the discussion of the first agenda item, all the participants expressed absolute support and approval for it. The session declared that Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, was elected as chairman of the State Affairs Commission (SAC) of the DPRK.

Still, it is right to ask why North Korea chose that particular form of words. On the face of it, this does sound like a claim to be the leader of Koreans everywhere—including the majority living south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), who had no part in ‘electing’ Kim Jong Un.

However, I think that is a misunderstanding. A plausible alternative explanation exists, rooted in North Korea’s internal politics rather than expressing hegemonic ambitions over the South.

Not Hegemonic, But Electoral

For there is an earlier use of the phrase in question, in quite a different context. Connoisseurs of storms in DPRK teacups will recall the frisson among analysts in March, when it emerged that Kim Jong Un was not listed as a member of the new SPA,[3] as he had been previously, like his father and grandfather before him. What did this change signify?

Elsewhere, including South Korea, quite often the President or head of the executive branch is not a member of the legislature. Perhaps this could be seen as an attempt at normalization.

A more convincing reason was offered by the Associated Press’s bureau chief in Pyongyang. AP has taken some flak for operating in the DPRK, but instances like this show that being on the spot can have real value. On March 13, Eric Talmadge tweeted the following elucidation—including That Phrase, a month before Choe Ryong Hae uttered it:

ELECTION UPDATE: Kim Jong Un didn’t stand as a candidate because by special decree he is now the supreme leader of the DPRK AND “supreme representative of all Korean people.” Deputies represent their districts, but supreme representative represents the entire nation.

Talmadge added that “The decree was made Feb. 20 by the standing committee of the SPA.” Asked what was his source for that information, he first said it was “common knowledge” in Pyongyang, and then that he was told this “on background”—which is fair enough.

On that basis, I reckon this is what happened. Quaintly, for an arbitrary and fearsome tyranny, North Korea occasionally evinces a touching concern for due process. In that spirit, Kim Jong Un tidied up the mess his father had left in the Party’s upper echelons: no Central Committee meetings, Politburo and Presidium members dying off but not replaced, and so on. (Of course, this was also all about reimposing the WPK’s grip on the military.)

Similarly, Kim or his advisers may now have decided that it was simply too anomalous for the Supreme Leader to represent a single constituency. In 2014—his first SPA outing—he became the member for Paektusan (the Mount Paektu region), heavy with symbolism (do people actually live there?)

Avoiding Farce

Also, this way Kim can sidestep the ineffable farce seen in 2003, when every constituency in the land nominated his father (well you would, wouldn’t you?). Making a show of grateful embarrassment, Kim Jong Il sent an open letter to all voters: thanking them for their loyalty, but explaining that by law he could only stand in one district. He did the same again in 2009.

Surely then, this word choice is more about internal politics than external ambitions. As per Talmadge, the word “all” in the phrase “the supreme representative of all Korean people” is not a claim to lead South Korea, but rather signifies and explains Kim’s new status in the DPRK’s electoral system, where he no longer represents a singular constituency. It was thus natural for Choe Ryong Hae, in formally proposing Kim as SAC Chairman, to allude to these new niceties.

Arguably, KCNA could have been more careful with their translation. While I hesitate to venture into linguistics, the Korean original phrase 조선인민의 최고대표자, which Ruediger Frank helpfully provides, does not explicitly say “all” (nor indeed “the,” since of course the Korean language possesses neither definite nor indefinite articles).

Wider debate will of course continue about North Korea’s real intentions towards the South, whether short- or long-term. There is much to discuss. Kim Jong Un may well covet South Korea, in his dreams. But he would be unwise to say so openly—and I don’t believe he did.

  1. [1]

    To explain my use of scare-quotes: A charade where citizens are de facto forced to endorse a single candidate, in public, is in no meaningful sense an election, even if officially named as such. For that matter, the SPA is in no real sense a parliament. It debates nothing, merely rubber-stamping—always unanimously—decisions already made elsewhere. If we value these words and what they mean, we should set a bar and use them accurately. This is not of course to deny the ceremonial importance of these occasions and institutions. The true power balance in North Korea’s ‘elections’ is very evident in these telling photographs of Kim Jong Un and other senior officials ‘voting’, carried by 38 North’s affiliate NK Leadership Watch.

  2. [2]

    If we are talking titles, the real anomaly, which no one has pointed out, is that the newly promoted Choe now has a longer titular tail than his Leader. This can be seen in several post-SPA news reports, e.g. Kim’s April 16 visit to a fish farm. Kim Jong Un, as usual, is described as “chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the armed forces of the DPRK”. Choe, listed first in Kim’s entourage, now gets his own unprecedented triptych: “member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee, first vice-chairman of the DPRK State Affairs Commission and president of the Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly”. Usually members of Kim’s entourage are merely named, or at most their main job is mentioned. So this is a big deal, showing Choe to be a big cheese.

  3. [3]

    Some helpful soul has put up a full list in English of all 687 members of the new SPA and their constituencies, with bio links for the more notable ones, on Wikipedia.

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