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Moving the pawns

While there seems to be a generational shift, with older legislators being edged out by relatively young replacements, there is no mass purge as was initially anticipated.

Elections in North Korea showcase Jong-un’s attempts at a makeover. (Express Archive) Elections in North Korea showcase Jong-un’s attempts at a makeover. (Express Archive)


North Korea went to polls earlier this month to elect deputies to the unicameral Supreme People’s Assembly. The state-controlled Korean Central News Agency proclaimed the elections a resounding success, and reported a 99.97 per cent voter turnout (apparently, those missing were either at sea or on foreign tours). These elections take place every five years, and voters have the democratic right to choose the one candidate nominated per constituency. These nominees are vetted and selected by the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, a coalition of four parties in which the Korean Worker’s Party is unofficially, but naturally, preeminent.

While the elections are, as such, unexceptional —  a rubber-stamp parliament does not merit any heavy investigation —  they are useful indicators to understand North Korea’s distinctive political landscape, as determined by the leader of the time.

These elections were keenly observed by Korea watchers, to the extent possible, for significant changes in leadership —  the likely follow-up to the execution of Jang Song-thaek in December 2013. It has been observed that while there seems to be a generational shift, with older legislators being edged out by relatively young replacements, there is no mass purge as was initially anticipated.

It is also important to note that this leadership reorganisation did not happen swiftly. While it may seem to belie logic and establish Kim Jong-un as an unpredictable leader, there is a certain rationale to the apparent inconsistency. The reshuffle is a logical next step in an attempt to consolidate power and establish the uniqueness of Jong-un’s leadership.

Jong-un succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, after the latter’s sudden death in December 2011. Jong-il had assumed complete control as head of state over some years, and not directly upon the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994. This despite the years that went into his training. Jong-un had had little training when greatness was thrust upon him. Establishing himself as the “Great Successor”, in the fashion of his forebears, required more work. Most importantly, he had to contend with indications of dissension from the regime’s foremost instrument of authority —  the military.

Jong-un therefore started weeding out the “undesirables” soon after he assumed power. The first signs of the regime heading towards change were prompted by the dismissal, in 2012, of the North Korean army chief of general staff, Ri Yong-ho, from all posts held by him. He is thought to have been removed to downsize the role of the military in state affairs, over which it is known to have a firm hold. This was a significant development, especially because he was one of the chief advocates of Jong-il’s “military first” (songun) policy. Yong-ho’s removal was followed by a slew of other significant military dismissals.

Then, of course, there was Song-thaek’s execution in 2013, which was especially significant because he was one of the three people appointed by Jong-il as his son’s guardian, and a party elder. He was also married to Kim Kyong-hui, Jong-il’s sister.

In terms of public posturing too, Jong-un has adopted a deliberately informal demeanour. This has been demonstrated in staged photographs of him joking with workers, taking joy rides on a rollercoaster with a visibly thrilled foreign diplomat, delivering speeches and making appearances with his young, attractive wife —  all suggestive departures from the way Jong-il conducted himself. He seems to be keen on publicising his own brand of informality that would paint him in a “human” light; certainly more so than his father, who delivered one public lecture in his entire rule.

Finally, in these elections, Jong-un contested from Paektusan constituency number 111, in which he emerged victorious. Mount Paektu, where Kim Il-sung led the Korean resistance against Japanese occupation and where Jong-il was apparently born (this claim is contested), holds pride of place in North Korean history as a legendary, revered site. The symbolism of Jong-un’s decision to contest from the constituency that Mount Paektu is in is therefore noteworthy —  it is the sanction that elevates him to mythical heights in the absence of a state religion.

Jong-un has sought to put an official stamp on his brand of politics through these elections. He has begun to replace older advisors, whom he perhaps considers out of sync with himself, with younger ones who would be more receptive to his ideas. This started with the ousting of Yong-ho, to inch towards an approach that would allow the party and cabinet greater say in matters of the economy and society than the military, and the removal of Song-thaek, formerly number two in the North Korean hierarchy, to demonstrate the extent of his power and the centrality of control. A major purge is therefore no longer as pressing a concern as it was when he came to power in 2010, although it will most likely continue in some form or the other and as the situation demands.

None of this, however, necessarily signals actual intent in terms of changes in official policy —  in that, Jong-un will continue to follow the precedent set by his father, and grandfather before him.

The writer is senior research officer, nuclear security programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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