In the session of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) of North Korea convened on June 29 in Pyongyang, the National Defense Commission was announced to be replaced with the State Affairs Commission. According to the amended North Korean Constitution, the Chairman of this new institution is considered the supreme leader of the country. The Chairman serves for a five-year term and then can be re-elected: “the term of office of the Chairman of the SAC coincides with the term of office of the sitting members of the current Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea.”
At the proposal of the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong-nam, Kim Jong-un was unanimously elected a Chairman of the new authority. Thus, having been awarded three titles: the Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim received the official powers of the head of the state in their entirety.
Hwang Pyong-so, the Director of the army’s General Political Bureau, Choe Ryong-hae, the Vice-Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and Pak Pong-ju, the Premier of North Korea, all three were awarded the titles of Vice-Chairmen of the new Commission.
There was also some reshuffling in the leadership of the parliament, government and supreme judicial authorities. In particular, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (which deals with issues related to the inter-Korean relations) was renamed the National Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. Its status was elevated, and now it has joined the ranks of the country’s freestanding authorities. In terms of economy, the Byungjin policy line and five-year strategy for state economic development were confirmed.
Theoretically, the State Affairs Commission will play the same role as the Central People’s Committee, which existed in times of Kim Il-sung. South Korean experts express an opinion that the creation of a new authority finalized the reshaping of the North Korean power structure of Kim Jong-un’s epoch.
Amendments made to the basic North Korean law were, quite expectedly, taken differently. Some think that elimination of the National Defense Commission implies the country’s demilitarization and departure from the tough political line. The fact that the “five-year plan” concept was revived was dubbed by some the “steering away from reforms.” Some construed the new leader elective position policy as a sign of intensification of factional struggle and a foreboding of Kim’s resignation. There were also those, who were quick to interpret the recent changes as an indicator of growing domestic discontent and willingness of the authorities to compromise…
In reality, the results of the parliamentary session and introduction of changes to the North Korean Constitution (the Constitution was last amended in 2012 following the death of Kim Jong-il) are by far more ceremonial events than the convention itself. Yes, one can argue that Kim Jong-un is reshaping the state government structure to meet his objectives, just as his father did after his inauguration.
Though all these topics trigger heated discussions, the elimination of the State Defense Committee is the “everybody’s favorite.” Since the State Defense Committee was replaced with the State Affairs Commission, which resembles (in some ways) the People’s Central Committee, an authority established in previous constitutions, some were wondering why the latter did not get this name.
The readers should realize that the North Korean Constitution was not a mere clone of either the Soviet or the Chinese basic law. For example, North Korean Cabinet has always remained a purely administrative body, whose head was never considered the second or third most powerful official after the country’s leader. He was mostly overseeing the country’s economic affairs. As for the North Korean security leadership, it was reporting directly to the leader.
Majority interpret the change of the name as a sign of “demilitarizatio
In fact, North Korean army is not simply an organized military force, but more of a multi-purpose candidate pool. A soldier is cheaper and more diligent than a civilian specialist is. That is why soldiers of the country’s People’s Army implement most of construction and a significant part of farm works. Engagement of military personal is also needed to correct a demographic imbalance. By the time the crises broke out, majority of North Koreans had moved to the cities. The remaining 30% of the country’s population living in the countryside failed to meet the demands of the country for agricultural product as soon as ratio of agriculture slumped. And this is precisely why North Korea will never be able to follow in China’s footsteps that are mainly based on large rural population of the country.
But let us get back to subject of the “name change.” Some say that the State Affairs Commission reminds of a similar Chinese authority, others identify it with the Committee on State and Government Affairs, which implemented reforms during progressive transformations of the end of the 19th century. Yes, the recent change might indicate that military officers will no longer be given a high priority in the new Commission. On the other hand, all three Kim Jong-un’s aids—Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae and Pak Pong-ju — became part of the new institution. Hwang represents the armed forces, Pak — the government, Choe, who continues holding the rank of General — the party structures. Besides, the Defense Committee consisted not only of representatives of the military, but also from civilian experts.
It seems that the assignment of a name should symbolize the ending of the period of hardships, which had required the creation of an extraordinary supreme authority. The new name institutionalize
Thought the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission is now an elective position, the probability of changes is slim. And, unless some extraordinary force majeure strikes the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-un will be re-elected to this post time and time again. From the outside, though, this “face lift” gave the state government structure a more democratic appearance.
As for the economic development, speaking at the session, Pak Pong-ju promised to exert every effort to achieve the goals set at the last convention of the Workers’ Party of Korea. He mentioned the power, light and agricultural sectors of economy as those with the highest priority, which means that conservative transitions will continue. As for the five-year plans, it should not be forgotten that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea exists in a hostile environment. Though this statement might seem somewhat arbitrary, North Koreans believe that they have no allies that would patronize them as the US patronizes South Koreans, for example. Moreover, nobody makes a secret that aggressive regime change plans do exist.
In such extraordinary circumstances, the country has no choice but to take steps to protect its sovereignty. And a whole range of a pre-war and war time measures it is implementing are just a natural reaction to the external challenge. Just recall that the capitalist states also introduced certain restrictions during WWII. Park Chung-hee did not shy away from five-year plans either, with the only difference that they were of a suggestive nature.
Thus, though the title changed, the essence remains unaltered. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains true to its line of policy.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“