The Party Conference

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



While the rest of the world was focused on the failed missile test, and even reaching the conclusion that the Kim Jong Un regime may be destabilized as a result of the humiliation (for example, Choe and Sanger in the New York Times), the regime was convening a Korean Workers Party Conference (April 11th) and the Supreme People’s Assembly (April 13th), nominally the highest governmental body. The duration of these gatherings is suggestive of their rubber-stamp nature; imagine if the US Congress were in session for one day a year. But in fact, these institutions are highly revealing because they are typically accompanied by major personnel changes. We address these gatherings in two posts, the first on the Party Conference, the second next week on the SPA.

In principle, regular Party Congresses are a feature of Communist party rule. The Party Congress brings together delegates that constitute the base of the party and ratifies important party business, even if crucial decisions carried out by much narrower bodies (in ascending order, Central Committees, Politburos of the Central Committee, and Standing Committees or Presidiums of the Politburo). In North Korea, Party Congresses have not met since 1980, showing how moribund these nominally consultative mechanisms are.

However, the late Kim Jong Il and early Kim Jung Un governments have resorted to a more irregular meeting, the Party Conference. Precisely because these meetings are irregular, convening them signals the significance of the message to be delivered. For example, the first Party Conference in 1958 provided Kim Il Sung the opportunity to undertake significant purges. The second Party Conference in 1966 marked a shake up too.

The 2010 Party Conference formally introduced Kim Jong Un as Kim Jong Il’s successor. Last week’s Conference codified Kim Jong Un’s ascent by bestowing him with some new offices.

One of the more curious outcomes of the Conference was that Kim Jong Il was given the title of Eternal General Secretary, just as his father was made Eternal President in 1998; as one pundit remarked, think of it as the equivalent of retiring a baseball player’s number. Those two positions are now retired.

But if the General Secretary slot is now eternally taken, a number of top positions left for the living are now occupied by Kim Jong Un. In our view, the most significant is First Secretary of the Secretariat, which is really the functional equivalent of General Secretary. This position signals his direct control over the guts of party power; the hierarchical apparatus that emanates from the Party Secretariat. It is likely, but not yet confirmed, that like his father he also will head—if does not already head--the Organization and Guidance Department, the critical node that controls party appointments.

Kim Jong Un was also moved up from Vice-Chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission—a position to which he was only appointed at the 2010 Party Conference—to Chairman. He is also now a member of the Presidium of the Politburo, and by dint of his overall standing effectively the head of that very small body as well (the other members are Kim Yong Nam, Choe Yong Rim, Choe Ryong Hae and Ri Yong Ho)

In short, the Dear Respected Kim Jong Un now occupies virtually all significant top leadership positions in the Worker’s Party. We can speculate about whether these titles in fact confer real power or whether they are simply an effort to publicly close ranks as internal battles continue to rage. But we are just not seeing it; to the contrary. As older members of the regime die off or are purged, Kim Jong Un will eventually surround himself with people that owe their lot in life largely to him. Following his appointment as First Chairman of the National Defense Commission, he immediately promoted 70 generals.

There were also a number of promotions within the party--to the Secretariat, Central Military Commission, Department Directors—but we focus on a handful of individuals that were promoted to or in the Politburo. We also provide three additional pieces of information on this group: their ranking on the Kim Jong Il funeral committee; their ranking on Kim Jong Un’s visit to Kumsusan Palace on Kim Il Sung’s birthday (April 15); and an analysis of the number of times the official in question has accompanied Kim Jong Un on on-the-spot guidance (OSG) appearances since his father’s death; in a future post we will provide more information on the methodology used in this network analysis. Each is listed below with brief information on other formal roles in the regime.

Name Age Ranking and Membership in Core OSG Network Promotions Other Info
Choe Ryong Hae 62 Funeral committee: 18th 

Day of the Sun delegation: 4th (behind Kim Jong Un, Kim Yong Nam and Choe Yong Rim, but ahead of Ri Yong Ho).

Appearances with KJU: 11 (13th most).

Presidium (Standing) Member of the Politburo (previously alternate member); Vice-Chairman of the CMC (previously member); Director, General Political Department of the KPA; Vice-Marshal, KPA Currently a member of the Secretariat (Secretary of the Central Committee) and the National Defense Commission, Choe was also named a Vice Marshal in the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and appointed the director of the KPA General Political Department (essentially the military’s chief political officer). He is a “princeling”; his father was Choe Hyon, a member of the Central Military Commission and Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, as well as a key supporter of the KJI succession. Choe Ryong Hae has close ties to the Kim family and his rapid rise and relative you indicates that he will be a major player in the Kim Jong Un regime.
Kim Jong Gak 70 Funeral committee: 24th and one of “Gang of Eight” accompanying Kim Jong Il’s bier. 

Day of the Sun delegation: 7th (behind Kim Kyong Hui but ahead of Jang Song Thaek).

Appearances with KJU: 14 (7th most)

Full Member, Politburo (previously alternate member); Minister, Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces Formerly First Vice-Director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA, he was made Minister of the People’s Armed Forces sometime this month (replacing Kim Yong Chun). He is also a member of the National Defense Commission and Central Military Commission. Kim received his promotion to Vice Marshal in February on the occasion of Kim Jong Il’s birthday. Another key figure in the succession, he is reported to be a “hardliner” within the regime.
Jang Song Thaek 66 Funeral committee: 19th and one of “Gang of Eight” accompanying Kim Jong Il’s bier. 

Day of the Sun delegation: 8th.

Appearances with KJU: 23 appearances (most frequent of top elite).

Full member, Politburo (previously alternate member) Well-known to North Korea watchers as the husband of Kim Kyong Hui (Kim Jong Il’s sister) and uncle of Kim Jong Un. In addition to his promotion to full member of the Politburo, he was already a Vice-Chairman on the National Defense Commission, a member of the Central Military Commission, and the head of the Administration Department, a key unit in managing personnel appointments and overseeing a number of security and judicial apparatuses.
Hyon Chol Hae 75 Funeral committee: 59th 

Day of the Sun delegation: 17thth

Appearances with KJU: only 3


Full member, Politburo (previously not a full or alternate member); Member, Central Military Commission; First Vice-Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, as well as Director of the General Logistic Bureau; Vice Marshal, KPA Hyon has held a number of important roles within the army, and was also formerly director of the General Affairs Bureau of the National Defense Commission. He frequently accompanied Kim Jong Il on his guidance and inspection tours (2nd most frequent over the entire period for which there is data, December 1996 to December 2011).
Ri Myong Su 76 Funeral committee: 74th 

Day of the Sun delegation: 19thth

Appearances with KJU: none.


Full member, Politburo (previously not a full or alternate member) Ri has been Minister of People’s Security (sometimes referred to as Public Security) since April 2011 and is a General in the KPA. Like Hyon above, he was formerly head of an NDC bureau (Administration Affairs) and frequently accompanied Kim Jong Il on guidance and inspection tours (4th most frequent, December 1996 to December 2011).
Kim Won Hong 66 Funeral committee: 58th 

Day of the Sun delegation: 18thth

Appearances with KJU: 12, 10th most.

Full member, Politburo (previously not a full or alternate member); Minister of State Security A General in the KPA, Kim was previously the head of the Military Security Command, which polices military officials and facilities. Since the September 2010 Party Conference, he has frequently appeared with Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, primarily at military events.

One of the big losers appears to be U Tong Chuk, who was actually one of the "Gang of Eight" which walked alongside Kim Jong Il's casket. He was the First Vice Director of State Security, but he just lost his alternate membership in the Politburo, lost his NDC seat, and a new director of State Security was named (Kim Won Hong). Internal security is an office of quite obvious significance, and we can imagine that Kim Jong Un would want his own man there.

The group above show some of the more important individual promotions, but we can also detail what changes occurred by institution:


Added: Choe Ryong Hae becomes member of the Presidium; Kim Jong Gak, Jang Song Thaek, Pak To Chun (member of the Secretariat, promoted to General in February), Hyon Chol Hae, Kim Won Hong, Ri Myong Su become full members; Kwak Pom Gi (formerly Chief Secretary of the South Hamgyong Provincial Committee), O Kuk Ryol (Vice-Chairman of the NDC), Ro Tu Chol (Vice-Premier of the Cabinet, Chairman of the State Planning Commission), Ri Pyong Sam (Director of the Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces) and Jo Yon Jun (First Vice Department Director of the Organization and Guidance Department) become alternate members.

Removed: Nothing is confirmed yet, but we do know that there were members dismissed from the Politburo. Given follow-up reporting, it appears that Jon Pyong Ho (who is fairly old and was removed from the NDC last April) and Pyon Yong Rip (who has only appeared sporadically in the past year) were removed as full members, while Kim Rak Hui (Vice-Premier of the Cabinet), U Tong Chuk (recently removed from the NDC) and Ri Thae Nam (former Vice-Premier of the Cabinet) were removed as alternate members.


Added: Kim Kyong Hui and Kwak Pom Gi

Central Military Commission

Added: Choe Ryong Hae becomes a Vice Chairman; Hyon Chol Hae, Ri Myong Su and Kim Rak Gyom become members; we have no information on Kim Rak Gyom.

In addition, Kim Yong Chun (recently removed as Minister of the People’s Armed Forces), Kwak Pom Gi and Pak Pong Ju (former Premier, generally thought of as a reformer) were appointed as department directors, although we still don’t know exactly what departments.

So what is the big picture? Here is what we see:

  • If there is a struggle below the surface, it is precisely below the surface. What is made manifest to the world is a coronation, with Kim Jong Un being granted the fully panoply of important party titles. We are not seeing his stature diminished in any way, shape or form.
  • Although there is a fair amount of continuity, we do see some people being plucked up into the inner circle while others are being dropped; Kim Jong Un is clearly building his own group and he has remade the face of the Politburo in particular;
  • The most significant players are probably those with multiple roles at the top of the party. Despite a large number of high-ranking party positions, it is striking how many of these positions are occupied by a relatively small elite with “overlapping directorates.” The official positions of this group typically include some standing either in the CMC or the military itself. Its Songun—military first politics—as far as the eye can see; next week, a post on The Speech confirms this analysis.


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