New year ushers in a number of changes in PyongyangNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-un kicked off the new year by paying tribute to his father and grandfather at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun as per tradition.
Accompanied by a number of senior officials - like the regime’s No. 2 Choe Ryong-hae and Premier of the Cabinet Kim Jae-ryong - Kim laid a floral basket at the two former dictators’ statues and paid homage to their bodies lying in repose at the mausoleum.
Breaking with precedent, however, North Korean state media did not publish photographs of the visit, only reporting on it through a written account.
With the world wondering what would happen with the expiry of a self-imposed year-end deadline for denuclearization negotiations, Pyongyang ushered in the new year Wednesday without a New Year’s address from Kim, as had been his custom. That seems to have been supplanted by his speech to members of a ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee plenary session on Tuesday.
In his lengthy address at the meeting, Kim said the North was no longer bound to its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests and signaled that he would unveil a “new strategic weapon” soon.
It was the first time North Korea skipped a New Year’s address from its leader in decades, since the regime’s founder Kim Il Sung replaced that speech with an address to the Supreme People’s Assembly - the country’s rubber-stamp Parliament - in December 1986. Only once was there was no speech at all at the end of the year: in 1957, when Kim Il Sung wrapped up a major purge of political opponents to consolidate his rule.
Such a plethora of irregularities - and the focus on economic “self-reliance” in Kim Jong-un’s speech - suggest North Korea finds itself in the throes of an economic emergency as international sanctions continue to take their toll.
Kim’s intention to continue development on a mighty new weapon, which U.S. and South Korean analysts say could be a submarine-launched ballistic missile if not an ICBM, may be an attempt to present a greater threat to the United States so as to shore up its negotiating position.
Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, said Wednesday he was “deeply concerned” with Kim’s abrogation of the moratorium, adding he hoped the tests will not resume. Nuclear and long-range missile tests violate UN Security Council resolutions.
“He once again expresses his support for the resumption of a dialogue that will lead to complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Guterres said, according to his spokesman. “Diplomatic engagement is the only pathway to sustainable peace.”
Yet Kim’s proclamations were not the only notable aspects of last week’s party plenary meeting. Kim conducted a major personnel change that replaced nearly all of his economic and foreign policy leadership.
According to the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), one of South Korea’s leading government think tanks under the National Intelligence Service, Ri Su-yong, a former foreign minister and head of the Workers’ Party’s international division, appears to have been replaced by Kim Hyong-jun, who was the North’s ambassador to Russia until last year, since Ri did not appear in any of the group photographs of the plenary meeting. Also missing from the photographs was the North’s current Foreign Minister, Ri Yong-ho, one of the regime’s leading diplomats responsible for much of last year’s negotiations with Washington.
With the ouster of the two Ris, whose foreign policy experience spanned several decades - which the INSS cautioned was far from certain - Kim may be signaling a major shift in his foreign policy. Kim Hyong-jun’s ties to Russia suggest the regime may be trying to shore up its support from traditional allies in Moscow and Beijing rather then resume talks with the United States for the time being.
The plenary session also allegedly saw the removal of Jang Kum-chol, who heads the powerful United Front Department, a party organ responsible for diplomacy and spying on South Korea. While Kim Jong-un made no mention of Seoul in his lengthy address on Tuesday, Jang’s dismissal could herald a big change in Pyongyang’s inter-Korean policy.
By contrast, prominent at the meeting was Ri Son-gwon, head of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, who was seldom seen at official events since April. Ri Son-gwon is regarded as a major player in the regime’s inter-Korean policy, having represented the North at high-level meetings.
Top economic officials like O Su-yong and No Du-chol were apparently also given the boot.
Pak Pong-ju, a leading economic reformist and former premier, was also speculated to have been fired, but he showed up at a later session of the plenary meeting in a wheelchair, indicating he was in an accident of some sorts.
One of the few high-profile officials to survive the personnel change - the South’s Unification Ministry believes almost two-thirds of the party’s 16 so-called “professional departments” were cut - was First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, the charismatic female diplomat responsible for many of the regime’s foreign statements.
It is believed that Choe will continue to lead negotiations with Washington going forward in coordination with Kim Hyong-jun.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]