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Kim Jong-un given new top title

Protocol problems with Presidium head may come to an end

Apr 16,2019
North Korea has bestowed upon Kim Jong-un the title “supreme representative of the Korean people,” according to state media.

The conferral of the new title was first described by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Friday, when it reported on Kim’s re-election as chairman of the State Affairs Commission, the country’s highest decision-making body.

Subsequent references to Kim in state media reports, like those on Sunday by state broadcaster Korean Central Television, confirmed that the title “supreme representative” is now Kim’s. It could possibly be codified in the Constitution, which state media said was amended on Friday - but did not disclose how.

According to an Associated Press report, the North had been waiting until Friday to publicly formalize the position, despite having approved it by special decree in February before Kim’s summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam.

In broader terms, Kim’s assumption of his new nomenclature dovetails with his expressed desire to make North Korea a “normal country.”

While Kim’s other title as head of the State Affairs Commission (SAC) already made him the equivalent to the supreme leader of the country, as per Article 100 of the Constitution, the country’s official head of state in matters of foreign affairs is the president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) - the country’s rubber stamp legislature.

This mismatch in formal leadership titles made protocol problems for North Korean officials when dealing with foreign heads of state, as testified by the North’s former interim ambassador to Britain, Thae Yong-ho.

In his personal blog page, Thae - now one of the highest-ranking defectors living in South Korea - said that the North’s diplomats could not exchange formal documents with Western governments under Kim’s name due to such issues.

Thae also wrote that Kim’s speech to the SPA on the second day of its convention on Friday seemed almost reminiscent of a presidential inaugural address in a democracy, suggesting the regime could be deliberately adjusting the formal roles of its legislative and executive bodies to give the appearance of normalcy.

This could be why Kim defied precedence last month by not standing for re-election as a representative in the SPA, opting to have his sister Kim Yo-jong elected to the legislature to represent his family.

In addition, the post of president of the Presidium on Thursday was passed from the 91-year-old Kim Yong-nam to Choe Ryong-hae, a seasoned politician who served as the regime’s de facto No. 2 official on and off through Kim Jong-un’s rule. Being of revolutionary stock as the son of one of the North’s earliest leaders, Choe was formalized as head of the legislature in that role but was also elected deputy chairman of the State Affairs Commission, which puts him in a directly subservient role to Kim.

Thae interpreted Choe’s assumption of these titles not as a strengthening of his power but rather his relegation to the role of a figurehead, as the Presidium’s main purpose is to receive foreign dignitaries.

His previous position as director of the Organization and Guidance Department of the ruling Workers’ Party, by contrast, had given him broad power to implement key policies set by the leader across the government, party and military.

Friday’s reshuffle also signaled the elevation of other key figures inside the regime, like former Premier Pak Pong-ju and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui. Pak, widely believed to be Kim’s right-hand man in economic affairs, was also made a deputy chairman in the State Affairs Commission, in which he is expected to play a larger guidance role in the economy. As Kim’s main representative in the negotiations with the United States, Choe Son-hui gained a seat on the SAC that elevated her to a cabinet-level figure.

With his authority further consolidated at home, Kim is expected to undertake his first duty as formal head of his country by holding a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to diplomatic sources cited by South Korea’s Yonhap News, Kim could be visiting Russia as early as this week, possibly in the city of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, where Putin could stop before a trip to China for an economic conference.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]


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