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N Korea at crossroads

Kim Jong Un recasts party rulebook to forge own identity

North Korean leader shifts from 'military first' to 'people first' in bid to form popular mandate

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in recent months has signaled a shift away from his father's focus on the military above all. (KCNA via Reuters)

SEOUL -- Kim Jong Un has placed the North Korean people first and foremost under revisions to the all-important governing party rulebook, according to reports that began surfacing this month, indicating that the leader is setting out to create an identity that is starkly different from his revered grandfather and father.

Since taking the reins in 2011, the North Korean leader had embraced his connection to the Paektu bloodline, invoking his grandfather and North Korean founder Kim Il Sung through his mannerisms and clothing choices.

But still struggling to cement his grip on power nearly 10 years since taking the reins, Kim Jong Un is now looking to establish his own political legacy to ensure his position in the coming decades and to scupper any rivals who also descend from the "sacred" bloodline.

The Workers' Party removed references to the songun military-first philosophy, as well as several mentions of juche -- the idea that North Korea must stay separate from the rest of the world under its godlike leaders -- in its bylaws at a January congress, a source familiar with the matter told Nikkei.

The new document also deleted a reference to the legacy of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Un's father Kim Jong Il.

Information on the updated document, which is seen as taking a higher level over North Korea's constitution, have not been available until recently. The bylaws were last updated in 2016.

Kim Jong Un is demonstrating that he is his own man, rather than relying on the authority of his father and grandfather, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

When Kim Jong Un initially succeeded his father Kim Jong Il as North Korea's leader in December 2011, he stressed that he would continue to honor his forebears' political legacy. Kim Jong Il in his last testament had reportedly urged his son to continue striving to unify the Korean Peninsula under the Kim family and to become a recognized nuclear power, as well as to defend the songun philosophy "to the very end."

But the latest update placed the focus instead on the North Korean people. Kim Jong Un himself has talked about putting the "people first" at several key events in the past, and state media also began actively using the slogan following the January party congress.

Floral arrangements at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun commemorate the 108th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung in front of statutes of him and son Kim Jong Il on April 16, 2020. (KCNA via Reuters)

Kim's recent actions also point to an increasing focus on the people. He repeatedly thanked the crowd with tears in his eyes at a military parade last October, following a difficult few months of widespread flooding and the coronavirus' spread in North Korea. He sent handwritten New Year's cards to the people to wishing them peace, according to local reports.

The unusually humble attitude likely stems from concerns that the North Korean people themselves pose the greatest threat to its dictatorship. With the country's economy struggling to cope with protracted international sanctions and a border closure with China over the coronavirus, Kim aims to ease public frustration by breaking from his father's focus on the military above all.

Kim still views nuclear arms as the "treasured sword" to protect the regime. But they did not feature heavily in the updated bylaws, signaling both Pyongyang's shift from developing to maintaining nuclear capability, and a desire to prevent stoking further tensions with the U.S.

The party also removed references to the parallel pursuit of nuclear and economic development -- a strategy North Korea began reconsidering in 2018 when it restarted nuclear talks with the U.S. Instead, the new by-laws call for greater self-sufficiency, as the North seeks to overcome protracted economic sanctions and win international recognition as a legitimate nuclear power.

The South Korean government believes that Kim has been transferring more authority to his aides. The new party bylaws established the post of "first secretary," who would act as a proxy for Kim and likely serve as the No. 2 figure in government.

The post is believed to have been granted to Jo Yong Won, a member of the Workers' Party Politburo standing committee and a trusted aide to Kim. Jo may be tasked with certain delicate economic policies that could pose risks for Kim if handled himself, and potentially take responsibility for any failures.

There is also speculation that the post was created so Kim could give greater authority to his sister Kim Yo Jong, who is currently the deputy director of the party's propaganda department, should he become incapacitated in some way.

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