North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been named the “general secretary” of the Workers’ Party, a position formerly held by his late father and grandfather, state media reported on Monday, in a move that appears to be aimed at bolstering his authority amid growing economic challenges.
The Workers Party’s continuing congress, the first of its kind in five years, announced Kim’s new title during its sixth-day session on Sunday, when the governing party held elections for its central committee.
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A congress statement said Kim “has gloriously realised the historic mission to complete the country’s nuclear build-up plan,” according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
The appointment was largely symbolic as Kim is already the ruling party’s top leader. During a 2016 party congress, he was appointed “party chairman”, the equivalent of “general secretary” held by his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung.
Before the 2016 congress, Kim Jong Un had led the party with the title of “first secretary”.
Since inheriting power on his father’s death in late 2011, Kim, 37, has gradually consolidated his grip on power through a series of high-profile executions and purges removing his potential rivals. He has also taken up a series of top jobs that include chairman of the State Affairs Commission and supreme commander of the North’s 1.2 million-member military, along with the top party post.
The two late North Korean leaders have kept posthumous titles – Kim Jong Il remains “eternal general secretary” and Kim Il Sung is “eternal president”.
The new title comes after state media said on Sunday that the congress had determined to change the party’s “Executive Policy Council into Secretariat”. The decision would lead to party officials to relinquish their current titles such as chairman and vice chairman and start using old titles such as secretary or vice secretary.
“It’s another indirect way of admitting that plans introduced in 2016 – including the new chairman system – did not really work out,” said defector-turned-researcher Ahn Chan-il of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul.
“Kim wanted to create a new image for himself and his era – that’s different from his father’s – by becoming a ‘chairman’, but it looks like he feels the need to stress his connection to his father in order to consolidate his leadership during this difficult time,” Ahn told AFP news agency.
The congress is being held as Kim faces what appears to be the toughest moment of his nine-year rule amid the COVID-19 pandemic and following a series of natural disasters this past summer.
At the meeting, Kim had admitted that “almost all sectors fell a long way short of the set objectives” in North Korea’s previous economic plan. He also said he would expand diplomacy, but promised on Friday to continue developing weapons including a “multi-warhead” intercontinental ballistic missiles, calling the United States “our biggest enemy”.
The congress on Sunday also named a new political bureau, which did not include Kim’s sister and key adviser Kim Yo Jong. While she remained a member of the central committee her exclusion from the politburo list confounded widespread expectations from observers who had earlier predicted she would be promoted to a full member of the bureau in a bid by her brother to reinforce the Kim family’s rule.
It was not immediately clear why the 32-year-old lost her politburo post.
Kim Yo Jong’s influence has grown dramatically in recent years, initially as what appeared to be the young leader’s personal secretary, and then his special envoy to South Korea and a deputy director of a key party department overseeing personnel and organisational affairs.
In 2017, she became only the second woman in patriarchal North Korea to join the exclusive politburo after her aunt Kim Kyong Hui, and South Korea’s intelligence agency said in August she was serving as the leader’s “de facto second-in-command”.
“It is too early to draw any conclusion about her status, as she is still a central committee member and there’s a possibility that she has taken up other important posts,” said Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.
The elections also highlighted the stellar rise of Jo Yong Won, who was newly named to the politburo’s five-strong praesidium and the party’s formidable Central Military Commission.
Choe Son Hui, a vice foreign minister who was instrumental in preparing for a second, failed summit with US President Donald Trump in 2019, was demoted.
Analysts say North Korea is using the congress to send the incoming US administration of Joe Biden a message of defiance, but is treading carefully after a tumultuous relationship between Kim and Trump.
The South Korean military said Monday it had detected signs a military parade had been held to accompany the congress on Sunday night in Pyongyang, but was tracking whether it was “an actual event or its rehearsal”.
Earlier reports cited satellite images indicating a parade “with military elements” could take place, but without necessarily showing off the North’s latest missiles.
Pyongyang held a night-time military parade in October to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling party, when it showed off a huge new intercontinental ballistic missile.
Analysts said it was the largest road-mobile, liquid-fuelled missile anywhere in the world, and was highly likely to be designed to carry multiple warheads in independent re-entry vehicles.
In his New Year’s address on Monday, the South’s President Moon Jae-in – who brokered the talks process between Kim and Trump – said Seoul would seize on the change of administration in Washington to “make a last effort to achieve a major turnaround in the stalled US-North Korea and inter-Korean dialogues”.