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Politics

'General Secretary' Kim Jong Un tightens grip on party in year 10

North Korea leader reaches back to the past, claiming forebears' title

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Workers' Party congress in Pyongyang, in this photo supplied by the country's Korean Central News Agency on Jan. 11.   © KCNA via Reuters

SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has entered his 10th year in power by reviving a title once used by his predecessors, in a visible attempt to further cement unitary control.

Kim was elected Sunday as general secretary of the ruling Workers' Party. The party had previously called him chairman.

The title of general secretary was last held by Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, whom the party crowned as the "eternal general secretary" in 2012, the year after his death.

The younger Kim could next try to reclaim the title of president, which had been retired when grandfather Kim Il Sung was posthumously enshrined as "eternal president."

Kim Jong Un was effusively praised in the party congress resolution published by the official Korean Central News Agency. He is an "outstanding leader" who has realized the "greatest achievements" for the party and revolution with his "gifted ideological and theoretical wisdom, extraordinary leadership and noble traits," it said.

And Kim's "outstanding diplomatic strategy" is "steering the trend" of global politics, it said. The document extoled his expansion of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, implying an intent to justify his authority.

Kim became supreme leader in December 2011, not long after his father died. But his grip on power was not always rock-solid. Unlike Kim Jong Il, who championed a military-first policy, the son moved to make the party the focus of his rule.

He purged military officers and executed uncle Jang Song Thaek, a leading figure in the government. He ordered the 2017 assassination of half brother Kim Jong Nam, another potential rival.

The North Korean leader's latest move "shows his confidence" that he ranks on the same plane as his father and grandfather in both name and reality, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. This demonstrates Kim's "strategic intention" to strengthen his one-man rule, Yang said.

Kim's younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was removed from the list of alternate members to the Politburo. She supervised the June 2020 demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office at Kaesong. She has also drawn attention for her deeper involvement in foreign affairs. Her words downplaying the chances of another summit with the U.S. were publicized in state media, for example.

While the sister may have taken a step down in official rank, her informal influence has not necessarily declined.

"Kim Yo Jong is frequently assisting Kim Jong Un during public activities," said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute. "Jong Un can decide at any time to elevate her rank."

First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, who was involved in talks with the U.S., has not been elected to the Politburo. No diplomatic official has been appointed to one of the seven newly created party secretary posts. This suggests that Kim will focus attention on the domestic situation -- where economic sanctions and the effects of COVID-19 have hit hard -- as well as on military buildup.

Receiving the promotion to the Politburo's elite five-member standing committee is Jo Yong Won, considered one of Kim's closest aides. Jo was the most frequent member of Kim's entourage during on-site guidance trips from 2017 to 2019, according to data from South Korea's National Intelligence Service. Jo also sits on the party's Central Military Commission.

Aging senior official Pak Pong Ju has apparently retired from the Politburo Standing Committee. Kwon Yong Jin was promoted to director of the General Political Bureau of the North Korean army.

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