[Viewpoint] Politburo’s return, Jang’s dilemma

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[Viewpoint] Politburo’s return, Jang’s dilemma

The Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee is quitely ascending to power, ever since the death of Kim Jong-il.

The Politburo? Yes, you heard me right. A nonentity for nearly three decades, the sector is finally showing some signs of resurrection. In the meeting held on Dec. 30 right after the funeral of National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il, it was the Politburo that presented Kim Jong-un as the Supreme Commander of Korean People’s Army.

The Bureau also adopted a “Decision Paper” on future policy that made clear the regime’s continued pursuit of army-first policy and went on to proclaim through special breaking news on Jan. 12, that they would preserve the body of Kim Jong-il “exactly as it is” in a glass coffin in Kumsusan Memorial Palace.

The return of Politburo is no simple matter. It has always been stated in the articles of the Workers’ Party of Korea that the Politburo is the highest decision maker in the country. In accordance, the body is made up of quite a number of elder statesmen, used to wield strong political influence throughout the nation.

That was until Kim Jong-il took the lead. During the former Kim’s era, the Politburo remained in all but name. A case in point is that the party convention opened not even once for over 30 years, leaving almost all the existing party members to pass away throughout those years. To top it off, former Kim - so focused on empowering the army and the National Defense Commission to highlight the army-firs policy only - left the Politburo to dwindle into nothing.

But not any more. It is the Politburo that is again declaring big decisions such as declaring young Kim Jong-un the supreme commander. So the real question at this point should be: Who is leading the Politburo?

As a North Korea specialist for the past two decades, I see the answer pointing toward Jang Song-thaek. Two years ago, a party representative meeting was held to name Kim Jong-il, then-leader; Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Choe Yong-rim, the premier of the cabinet; and Ri Yong-ho, the vice marshal, as presidium members of the Politburo.

But now that Kim Jong-il is no more and Kim Yong-nam and Choe, both in their frail 80s, we may be able to guess more easily who is behind the new power trend. If Ri from the army wanted the power for himself, he would have tried to add more weight to the National Defense Commission rather than the Politburo.

That leaves Jang, the seasoned politician who was at the late-Kim’s side for most of his life, as the only potential candidate. Besides, it was he who began to show up in public events, donned in four-star army suit since the Christmas time. What we might be seeing from now on, may be a masquerade orchestrated by Jang through the means of Politburo, in order to lead the Stalinist state.

The return of Politburo reminds me of South Korea’s national emergency security committee launched back in the 80s. When the late-President Park Chung Hee was assassinated, it was then-ambitious military leader Chun Doo Hwan who stepped in to set up such committee, in an attempt to take full control of the nation later. In Pyongyang, it seems Jang is out to do exactly that.

One more thing to consider. Why would Jang choose to empower the Politburo rather than the National Defense Commission? My speculation is that all the while the country cried out for past 17 years’ army-first policy, frictions may have been building up between elite party members. There may also have been certain understandings between these members to restore their old status and such may have played a keen part in Jang’s nomination.

If my guess proves to be correct, Jang, aged 66 and the guardian of Kim Jong-un, may have got himself into a dangerous game. In my view, what Jang should have done for the sake of the new successor is to take full control of the army. But the choice he made now leaves him to tackle several tasks at once. He will have to keep expressing his support for the army-first policy, sometimes to the extent of allowing armed provocations against South Korea, while at the same time keeping the army sector in check.

Also, he will have to restore the old glory of the Politburo, which may include wresting back from the army the rights to handle foreign currency and policy toward South Korea.

We have yet to see whether Jang could successfully balance out these two things - coaxing the army sector while assisting the young leader to full power.

*The author is a North Korea specialist in Washington and a former JoongAng Ilbo reporter.

by Brent Choi
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