[Viewpoint] Meaning of the North’s Constitution

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[Viewpoint] Meaning of the North’s Constitution

North Korea’s revised Constitution has been recently released, and it provides the constitutional and systematic groundwork for North Korea as a military nation. The Constitution of 1972 established the “Revolutionary Leader Theory” and the 1998 revision established the system of the National Defense Chairman by providing for “Seongun,” or a “military-first” policy.

The latest revised Constitution includes specific clauses on the military-first policy that were not reflected in 1998 and newly sets out the authority and duties of the chairman of the National Defense Commission.

The 1998 revised Constitution included reorganization of state agencies centered on the National Defense Commission, but it did not delineate the specific authority and duties of the powerful commission. Probably, it was considered a temporary organizational scheme to operate a crisis management system after the death of Kim Il Sung, with the intention of returning to the usual state system when the situation stabilized.

As a result, the Constitution limited the National Defense Commission’s jurisdiction of management and leadership to “defense,” by stating the National Defense Commission as “the highest military leadership agency of the national sovereignty and a comprehensive defense management agency” and giving the chairman of the commission the role of commanding “overall military forces and leading the defense program in general.” However, the chairman of the National Defense Commission was in effect the highest position in the government with overall control over national affairs.

The newly revised Constitution dramatically reinforces the authority and duties of the chairman and stipulates the powers that have been executed by the chairman. The chairman of the National Defense Commission not only leads national projects in general but also has the authority to ratify and abandon treaties and declare states of emergency. The Constitution seems to give the chairman authority similar to those of a president in a Western country.

North Korea has advocated military-first politics as the basic ruling system of the Kim Jong-il era since the death of Kim Il Sung. When the Constitution was revised in 1998, it created a government system centered on the National Defense Commission but did not reflect a specific leadership philosophy for the military-first policies.

The latest Constitution states that North Korea takes military-first policy and the juche ideology of self-reliance as “the leadership guideline of activities,” and adds military servicemen as one of the sovereign classes. While the 1972 Constitution included “soldiers” as sovereign power holders, they were dropped in the 1998 Constitution. The most recent revision replaced soldiers with “military servicemen.”

By adding military-first policy as a leadership ideology and including military servicemen as sovereign power holders, North Korea wishes to constitutionally complete a military state. The military-first doctrine is not at the same level as the juche ideology, but more of an embodiment of it.

It is notable that “communism” has been removed in the revised Constitution. When socialist countries are collapsing and struggling to keep people well fed, communism is a far-fetched idea. The socialist objective of realizing distribution based on labor is hard to attain under present conditions, and the communist idea of realizing distribution based on demand is not in sight.

China assumes that becoming a socialist state is a long process that takes over 100 years. It is pursuing rapid economic growth as a primary socialist stage. North Korea also proposes its own socialist theories and is more interested in resolving immediate challenges. It seems to have omitted the communist objective since defending socialism is the highest priority in the confrontation with imperialism.

In response to the international community’s demand for improved human rights, a human rights clause has been added to the Constitution, but it also contains new clauses on reinforcing the ideological revolution, labor classes and collectivism, reflecting an intention to tighten control over society. Clauses on much-anticipated economic reforms are nowhere to be found. After all, the Kim Jong-il regime seems to want to remain a military nation centered on armed forces. Meaningful policy change and legislation will only be possible when the North-U.S. hostility is resolved and Pyongyang has confidence in the system’s stability.

A more serious change in policy direction will be made after 2012, a period when Pyongyang says it will become a powerful and prosperous nation.

The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Go Yu-hwan
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