The Supreme People’s Assembly and “Cabinet Responsibility”: An Economic Reform Debate?

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



Last week, we analyzed the major Party Conference that took place in April, an important political prelude to the celebration of Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday on April 15. If the 2010 Party Conference was the introduction and designation of Kim Jong Un, the 2012 conclave was the coronation. There was absolutely no ambiguity, no half measures. Kim Jong Un was awarded every single important top party post: as a member of the Politburo Presidium, as the First Secretary of the Secretariat, and as Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The North Korean regime has now also hosted the 5th session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly. Unlike the Party Conferences and the moribund Party Congresses, the state body does in fact meet regularly if for only a day or two at a time. But the SPA was interesting this year because the National Defense Commission—from which Kim Jong Il appeared to rule—is nominally a government not a party body.

But it turns out that the meeting also coincided with the delivery of a second speech by Kim Jong Un that is going to take some careful thought. Although there are absolutely no tangible signs of economic reform in the country, this second speech—splayed across the two front pages of the Rodong Sinbun-- —raised very different issues than the Day of the Sun speech; indeed, the contrast between the two—at least by North Korean standards—is striking. We are not alone; Time had a piece on it as well, although drawing largely on The Speech.

We talk first about the outcome of the SPA and then the emerging discussion of whether Kim Jung Un is trying to lay the institutional groundwork for economic reform.

At the SPA, Kim Jong Il was made eternal Chairman of the NDC to go along with his position as eternal General Secretary. Similar to what happened at the Party Conference, a new position was created for Kim Jong Un: First Chairman of the NDC. This formula is similar to that reached in the Secretariat: rather than becoming General Secretary, that position was retired and Kim Jong Un made First Secretary. But the KCNA was quick to explain the significance of being first chairman:

“The institution of the new post of the first chairman of the NDC is a very important issue of clarifying who is the supreme leader of the DPRK who will lead the struggle for accomplishing the revolutionary cause of Juche and providing a legal and institutional guarantee for steadfastly ensuring the unitary leadership of the leader over the overall state affairs.

That is why the proposal stipulated that the post of the first chairman of the NDC shall be instituted on the principle of inheriting 100 percent the revolutionary essence of the NDC system established by Kim Jong Il and the first chairman of the NDC shall lead the overall state affairs including internal and external affairs as the supreme leader of the state.

The proposal revised the title of Section 2 of Chapter 6 and Articles 91, 95 and 100-105, 107, 109, 116, 147 and 156 of the Constitution in line with the institution of the new post of first chairman of the NDC.”

All of these constitutional revisions appear to simply replace “Chairman” with “First Chairman” or to vest additional powers in the office of First Chairman and/or the body as a whole. This includes a revision of Article 100, which simply states that “The chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission [NDC] is the supreme leader [ch'oego ryo'ngdoja] of the DPRK.” Any questions?

There were also three important appointments that tighten the network of overlapping positions at the top of the system; the positions went to Choe Ryong Hae, Kim Won Hong and Ri Myong Su each of whom we profiled in our post on the Party Conference. Choe, who picked up major positions in the party as a member of the Politburo Presidium and Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission, is now the director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA as well. Kim Won Hong, now a member of the Politburo (in addition to membership in the Central Military Commission) was also named Minister of State Security. And Ri, who also became a member of the Politburo, is now the Minister of People’s Security. Obviously, appointments in these areas are pivotal; songun is not just about military first but about “control the military first.”

The composition of the NDC is shown in the table below, which also shows all other official positions; again, the point about the interlocking elites at the top of the party, military and state jumps out.

The National Defense Commission
  Other State Positions Party Positions Military Positions
(Eternal) Chairman
Kim Jong Il   Eternal General Secretary  
First Chairman
Kim Jong Un Delegate, SPA Member, Presidium of the Politburo; First Secretary, Secretariat; Chairman, Central Military Commission; Member, Central Committee General and Supreme Commander of the KPA
Vice Chairmen
Kim Yong Chun Delegate, SPA; former Minister of the People’s Armed Forces (removed April 2012) Full member, Politburo; Member, Central Military Commission; Member, Central Committee Vice Marshal
Ri Yong Mu Delegate, SPA Full member, Politburo; Member, Central Committee Vice Marshal
Jang Song Thaek Delegate, SPA Full member, Politburo; Member, Central Military Commission; Director, Administration Department; Member, Central Committee General
O Kuk Ryol Delegate, SPA Alternate member, Politburo; Member, Central Committee Vice Marshal
Pak To Chun Delegate, SPA Full member, Politburo; Secretary, Secretariat; Member, Central Committee General
Kim Jong Gak Delegate, SPA; Minister of the People’s Armed Forces (since April 2012) Full member, Politburo; Member, Central Military Commission; Member, Central Committee Vice Marshal; former First Vice-Director of the KPA General Political Bureau
Ju Kyu Chang Delegate, SPA Alternate member, Politburo; Member, Central Military Commission; Director, Machinery and Industry Department; Member, Central Committee Colonel General
Paek Se Bong Delegate, SPA Head, Second Economic Committee; Member, Central Committee Colonel General
Choe Ryong Hae Delegate, SPA Member, Presidium of the Politburo; Vice Chairman, Central Military Commission; Secretary, Secretariat; Member, Central Committee Vice Marshal; Director of the KPA General Political Bureau (since April 2012)
Kim Won Hong Delegate, SPA; Minister of State Security Full member, Politburo; Member, Central Military Commission; Member, Central Committee General
Ri Myong Su Delegate, SPA; Minister of People’s Security Full member, Politburo; Member, Central Military Commission; Member, Central Committee General

Although there was no explicit mention of it, we did see one prominent demotion; U Tong Chuk did not return to the NDC. U, who was First Vice-Director of State Security and an alternate member of the Politburo in addition to his NDC membership, has not been seen at any recent events. His name also did not appear on a roll call of Politburo members, leading us to speculate that he has lost his position on that body as well. This is a pretty rapid and even remarkable fall for a man that was one of the “Gang of Eight” to stand beside Kim Jong Il’s casket. Though it is unlikely to have any effect on policy, it might send a signal that no one is completely secure.

Our interpretation of the SPA is thus pretty much the same as our interpretation of the Party Conference: top roles are being assigned to Kim Jung Un, none of the half-measures of the 2010 Party Conference, no omissions, with major new appointments that help us identify who is relying on.

But the big question is whether any of it matters or whether there is simply going to be continuity of songun or military-first politics. The table above would certainly suggest “yes.”

But songun might be combined with a new direction with respect to economic policy; my colleague Marc Noland made this point in Korea After Kim Jong Il. Noland pointed to leaders such as Ataturk and Park Chung Hee who combined external threats, a strong military, and economic reformism into a distinctive legitimating mix. And in Famine in North Korea we noted that the roll-out of the songun concept actually coincided with the mild reformism of the 2002 program. Whatever its substantive flaws, the 2002 reform was the most ambitious attempt at doing something different since 1990.

Readers of The Speech—as in the Day of the Sun Speech—were depressed at the relentlessly “songun-esque” quality of the performance; there is even a You Tube excerpt if you want to decide whehter you think it was ready for prime time.

But on April 6, Kim Jong Un gave a speech or "dialogue" to the Central Committee "leadership" (책임일군) prior to the Party Conference; it is not clear whether this implies a revival of the Central Committee, which appears not to play a central role in decision-making. That speech was subsequently published in Rodong Sinmun on April 19 and linked above. The significance of the speech was signaled yesterday by the fact that a host of heavyweights weighed in on it including Choe Thae Bok (WPK Secretary), Cho Byung Ju (Vice Premier of the Cabinet), and Ri Kyu Man (KPA general). Both the April 6 speech and the Day of the Sun speech have now achieved the status of a so-called rojak (노작,  勞作 ), or as Yonhap explains "a classic work that has significant theoretical and practical meaning in the development of the revolutionary theory of the working class."

The April 6 dialogue has more than its share of songun, and more than its share of this priority and that priority. But it also put much more emphasis on improving the living standards of the people. Moreover, it did so not so much by pulling out the usual Chollima rhetoric of the “flames of Hamnam,” 150-day campaigns or technological advancement but also by mentioning that the cabinet should handle economic matters. As simple as such a claim may appear—let the economic ministries manage the economy—it would in fact be a major departure.

Following is our translation—which differs somewhat from the Rodong English version--of the relevant portions of the April 6 “speech”:

“…In order to bring a revolutionary transition in improving people’s standard of living and constructing a strong economic nation, all issues pertaining to economic projects should be concentrated to the cabinet as [we] thoroughly establish rules and order where they are resolved under its unified leadership.

The cabinet, as the commanding headquarters of the nation’s economy, should establish goals and strategies for economic development that are scientifically realistic and prospective, and also take the lead in pushing forward to exert unified control and management of the overall economic projects.

All parts and units in the government shall resolve matters pertaining to economic projects by thoroughly agreeing with the cabinet and execute cabinet decisions and instructions that satisfy the economic policy of the party without fail.

Party committees at all levels should struggle against instances that hinder the strengthening of the cabinet responsibility system, the cabinet centered system, while putting up and supporting the cabinet and [its] administrative economic bodies at all levels so that they can conduct their duty and the role of being in charge, as masters, of economic projects.”

There is an important precedent for institutional engineering as a prelude to policy change. Kim Jong Il's rojak, "Let us make this year the year of revolutionary transition in the construction of the socialist economy - letter to participants of the all-party party officials convention," dated Jan 24, 1997 (published in Rodong, Jan 28, 1997, and quoted from the KCNA), made similar points about the importance of party guidance but government implementation:

"...Party organizations should take responsibility in guiding policy to achieve the party's economic policy. Although the party put out a revolutionary economy strategy and set important course including the strengthening of the state administrative council (SAC, 정무원, former cabinet) responsibility system, the SAC centered system, the reason that it has not been fully implemented is because the party is not being able to fully grasp and guide the execution of economic policies....the masters of economic issues (projects) are the administrative economic officials including those of the SAC. Party organizations and party officials should let them to fulfill their responsibilities and their roles as masters of economic issues. [We] should actively support all administrative economic officials to correctly plan and direct economic matter as masters [of economic matters] that adheres to party policy..."

These measures were some of the first stirrings of the partial reform effort of the 1998-2002 period.

The fact that the regime can, in principle, combine songun and some economic rationalization does not mean that they will be able to do so. The planning process is fragmented among competing centers of economic power, including the military-industrial complex, military trading companies, party enterprises, Bureau 39 and other indirect taxing mechanisms as well as the state-owned enterprises that nominally fall under the plan. It may be that the system is too far gone—too captured—to subject to centralized discipline.

But we read this statement as suggesting that some real thought is being given to the question of how North Korean will pull itself out of the hole it has dug itself over the last two decades. Moreover, there is historical precedent suggesting similar lines of approach, which means that KJU can anchor what he is doing in the words of his father.

Let’s face it; we really don’t know what is going on in Pyongyang yet. But rather than jumping to conclusions about anything, we need to wait and watch; things are clearly still settling and combinations may appear—songun and cautious reformism—that we are not thinking about.

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