Mapping the Succession I: An Overview of Institutional Change

Stephan Haggard (PIIE), Luke Herman (University of California, San Diego) and Jaesung Ryu (East Asia Institute)



Luke Herman has been working for some time on a large-scale data project on the North Korean leadership, spanning the period from 1996 to the present. With Jaesung Ryu, we have now done some simple analysis of trends; we report some of them here. In future posts we will focus on the changing role of the military and the composition of elite networks during the transition.

We begin with an overview of three important bodies: the National Defense Commission, the Politburo (including the Standing Committee, full and alternate members) and the Secretariat. We do not make any claims about the operational significance of these bodies; it is hard to know if they even meet. But they are made up of individuals that consistently appear as politically significant actors, because:

  • they simultaneously head significant organizations that wield material resources (for example, the presence of Secretaries or general officers on the Politburo);
  • because of official rankings based on order of appearance at various functions;
  • because the frequency of their appearances with Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un—as measured through on-the-spot-guidance tours—suggests proximity to the leadership.

In Figure 1 below, we simply pool these institutions, tracking the total number of members on each body from 2002 to the present; membership in the body for a given year is captured by membership on December 31 of the of the year in question, except for “current” which is as of May 2012.

We see two developments of interest. First, all of these bodies shrank over the 2000s, largely by natural attrition as elderly members died off. These institutions were aging and probably becoming even less relevant—to the extent that they ever were. The second development of note is the expansion that occurs in 2010, beginning with a major restructuring of the National Defense Commission. The expansion of the Politburo is even more dramatic and occurred in several stages, and with some substantial shuffling. In short succession—in September 2010 and April 2012—the leadership convened two Party Conferences; these were the first major party assemblies in thirty years. The Politburo grew from 10 to 31 in 2010, and then witnessed some attrition with the loss of 4 members between the two conferences before again expanding to 31 in 2012.

However, a distinctive feature of the North Korean system is that these institutions are staffed by a number of people who hold overlapping positions. This is most obvious in the case of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. Before his death, Kim Jong Il was concurrently a standing member of the Presidium of the Politburo, the Chairman of the National Defense Commission and General Secretary of the Workers’ Party in addition to his military role as Supreme Commander of the armed forces (he also held the rank of Marshal). After the Workers’ Party Conference in April 2012, Kim Jong Un also became a member of the Presidium of the Politburo, as well as holding the functionally equivalent roles to those of his father as First Chairman of the NDC and First Secretary of the Workers’ Party. In addition, he is the Supreme Commander of the armed forces and holds the rank of General.

However, the phenomenon has become even more pronounced during the succession. Figure 2 shows the number of positions of all three institutions as well as the number of discrete individuals occupying them. As can be seen, the increase in the number of positions grows much more rapidly than the increase in the elites holding them. While the power elite is expanding, as new members are being brought into the inner circle, the “inter-locking directorate” structure at the top is also becoming more pronounced, suggesting an inner core to the inner core that we will explore in more detail in future posts.

Another way to track the institutional history is to look at turnover. Because the number of individuals on each of these bodies is not necessarily constant—ie., people who retire or are dismissed are not necessarily replaced—we measure turnover by considering both dismissals and new additions; in Figure 3, we enter additions as positive numbers and dismissals as negative. To avoid double counting, we also focus for this purpose not on the total number of positions, but the total number of discrete individuals occupying these high offices.

A final way of looking at these broad trends is through the lens of age and leadership cohorts. Figure 4 tracks the average age of all three bodies, as well as the average age of all discrete individuals occupying positions in them. The continuity in institutions prior to 2008 can be seen in the steadily rising average age of the core institutions, peaking at nearly 80 in 2008. The NDC was a partial exception, as it witnessed more turnover, as can be seen the effect of a single addition to the body in 2003. Nonetheless, the broad story holds. After 2008, the average age falls. Although this is driven in part by the ascent of Kim Jong Un, he only changes the average age of each institution by about a year or so. The fall in the average age is most pronounced in the Secretariat, the key administrative institution of the party itself but also the body that oversees the state apparatus.

Three simple take-aways:

  • The succession was accompanied by an expansion of core institutions, presumably in an attempt to revive them; most notable in this regard is the Politburo.
  • This attempt at institutional revival did involve the recruitment of new and younger faces into the top institutions, particularly in the Secretariat. It is too early to know if this fact has substantive or policy significance, but is worth watching;
  • At the same time, however, the number of individuals occupying overlapping positions in these institutions has also gone up, suggesting both a controlled expansion of the top elite and an even more controlled expansion of an “inner core” of individuals with multiple institutional roles.

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