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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea's Kim Jong Un crowned as party general secretary

Sister Kim Yo Jong not in Politburo, likely to protect her from 'villain role'

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang in this photo supplied by the official Central News Agency on Jan. 11.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was crowned general secretary of the Workers' Party, tightening his grip on the ruling party 10 days before the inauguration of Joe Biden as U.S. president, the official Korean Central News Agency reported on Monday.

KCNA said the party's congress elected Kim as general secretary on Sunday, changing his official title from chairman. Kim became the country's supreme leader in 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, and received the title of party chairman in 2016.

He reinstated his predecessors' post of general secretary and has now taken it. In North Korea, the title of general secretary is symbolic, meaning the top leader of the party.

"The party's eighth congress decided to raise comrade Kim Jong Un highly to the general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea," KCNA said.

The announcement comes just days before Biden takes over from President Donald Trump, who had relatively good relations with Kim. Biden said in his election campaign last year that he would not tolerate Pyongyang's nuclear arms program, hinting at a rough road ahead for relations between the two countries.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in greets Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Seoul in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in February 2018.   © Reuters

The North Korean leader's younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was excluded from the list of alternate members of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party. She has played the role of secretary to her brother, engaging in summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump for the last few years.

Experts say she was excluded from the post because her brother wants to protect her from political damage and pave the way for new roles for her.

"Kim Yo Jong has played a role of a villain internally and internationally. I think the exclusion is an action to protect her," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "Even though she is excluded from the bureau, I think she will continue to play a key role, connecting bureaucrats and the supreme leader. She can take new roles in the next round, as there is no secretary in charge of South Korean policy."

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korea held a military parade at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Sunday night related to the party congress. The JCS said intelligence units in South Korea and the U.S. were following the event, which could potentially be a rehearsal for something larger.

A general view of the congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang in this photo supplied by the official Central News Agency on Jan. 11.   © Reuters

Over the weekend, North Korea said it is developing nuclear submarines and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, threatening to target objects within 15,000 km. That range covers most of the U.S. mainland.

KCNA said the congress, which started Tuesday, will continue in session but did not specify when it will conclude. The previous party congress, the first in 36 years, was held for four days in 2016.

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