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N Korea at crossroads

How Kim's ultra-dictatorship fuels rumors of North Korean purge

Government reshuffle comes as US negotiations and economy remain stalled

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to have used the failed Hanoi summit with the U.S. to tighten his already strong grip on the country.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- A recent South Korean media report on a violent purge of senior North Korean officials made headlines around the world.

The report said some officials held responsible for the failed summit in February between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had been executed, sent to forced labor camps, or ordered to lie low. Others, however, have been confirmed alive and are still active in government.

Verifying the purges and tracking changes in the government have been difficult for observers of the reclusive nation, but one thing is obvious: All actions have solidified Kim's hold on power as he strives to create an ultra-dictatorship, unprecedented even for North Korea. And all have occurred as negotiations with the U.S. have stalled amid apocryphal reports about the country's continuing slide.

At an April meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly -- the country's equivalent of parliament -- Kim was reelected chairman of the State Affairs Commission. Kim is also chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea. Although the titles remain unchanged, the roles are significantly different with the end result being Kim further strengthening his hold over the country.

This could be seen in the March parliamentary elections, in which Kim chose not to run. The elections are merely a rubber-stamp vote of confidence for candidates chosen by the country's only political party. It is a system created by Kim Il-sung, the current Kim's grandfather and North Korea's first leader. After he died, his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, continued holding the elections.

After Kim Jong-il's death, Kim ran in the 2012 and 2014 elections. But he did not run this March because "he wanted to impress on the country that he was not a mere politician but the absolute leader supported by all," according to a former senior WPK member.

Kim addressed the SPA this year for the first time in 29 years in a nod to his grandfather, who last formally spoke to the assembly in 1990. But the road to this year's address indicates just how much North Korean politics have changed.

There were a number of unusual appointments at the SPA, notably the promotion of Choe Ryong Hae, a committee member of the party's Politburo, as president of the SPA's presidium and the newly created post of first vice chairman of the SAC.

Overseas news media reported on Choe's expanded power. But while partly true, there is no No. 2 in North Korea as Kim runs the show.

Choe's appointment is "like speaker of the National Assembly in South Korea becoming chief of the secretariat office for the president at the [presidential palace]," said Hong Min, director of North Korea research at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification.

The appointment stands out because, on the surface, it seems like Choe holds all key responsibilities for the party, state and parliament, according to Hong. Prior to this, SAC members were chosen by the SPA, which allowed the nation to keep up the appearance of a political system based on checks and balances.

But Choe's new role dispels this notion.

The SAC, established by Kim in 2016, is the country's highest policy-making body, and its chairman has more pull than that of the WPK. With the new authority granted to Kim, he is now more powerful than even his charismatic grandfather.

Since the April SPA meeting, North Korean media has described Kim as the "supreme representative of all the Korean people." When Kim Yong-nam was president of the assembly's presidium assembly, his post was equated with head of state, and he was tasked with appointing the country's foreign ambassadors.

The SPA possibly amended the constitution in April to make the chairman of the SAC head of state.

The slogan "state first principle" has been used frequently since around the autumn of 2017 when Pyongyang began more international dialogue. As such, Kim has made clear that the country will shift toward state-to-state diplomacy as an "ordinary country" rather than party-to-party exchanges between socialist countries.

If in fact the president of the SPA's presidium no longer represents North Korea in diplomatic matters, Choe's appointment raised his stature in name only, while weakening his real power, said a source familiar with the North.

Choe is from one of the anti-Japan partisan factions that have formed the country's power base since the days of Kim Il-sung. Kim has given Choe key concurrent positions, possibly to symbolize national unity at a difficult time.

In the April reshuffling, Pak Pong Ju was removed from his post of premier and succeeded by Kim Jae Ryong, who served as party chief of Chagang Province, home to many munitions factories. The promotion of Kim Jae Ryong indicates that Kim has no choice but to rely on expertise gained from the armaments industry -- including nuclear weapons and missiles -- for the country's diplomatic and economic endeavors.

Trump recently said that he received a "very warm, very nice letter" from Kim on the anniversary of their first meeting. Eyeing a possible summit after autumn, Kim evidently intends to use his newfound powers to beef up nuclear weapons and missiles -- both strong cards when dealing with Trump. He will also likely test new weapons, tighten his grip on the military and populace, and increase economic activity.

As for the purges, WPK Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol escaped retribution but has been relieved of real power, according to a U.S. media report.

Meanwhile, Kim Hyok Chol, the optimistic special envoy to the U.S., and Kim Song Hye, head of the United Front Department's tactical office, have not been seen in public since the summit.

An expert on North Korean affairs said they will "undoubtedly" be punished severely, as will be a female interpreter.

Word briefly circulated that even Kim Yo Jong, the leader's trusted younger sister, was ordered to lie low, suggesting political turbulence at the top.

Noting the significant changes, a diplomatic source said, "A communication gap between Kim and government officials has grown so wide that negotiations with North Korea must be at the highest level."

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