No, not that President Kim
By Aidan Foster-Carter
This week North Korea's President Kim begins a tour of Indo-China. Have Kim Jong-il's two trips to China given him a yen for wider horizons? Nope. Not that president Kim. So did they elect someone else? You've got to be kidding. A coup? Perish the thought. Then what's going on? Nothing at all. It's just that the formalities of North Korea's power structure - the realities are something else again - can be rather confusing. This article will boldly strive to dispel Confucianism. Take a deep breath ...
We start - where else? - at the top. The Dear Leader is The Man, of course. But president, he ain't. In its unending quest to be different, North Korea has three heads of state. And just to be really different, one of them is dead. Kim Il-sung - the original Great Leader, whose death in 1994 led to four years of political limbo - was declared president for eternity when the constitution was finally revised in 1998. Long before that, his son had been groomed to succeed him. Kim Jong-il worked in the ruling Korean Workers Party (KWP) from 1964, joining its Politburo in 1973 (All this was hush-hush: I remember North Korean officials indignantly denying rumors of anything so reactionary as hereditary succession under communism ...) Emerging in public only in 1980, in practice he increasingly ran the show.
But not officially. Besides being secretive and rarely seen, only in the 1990s did the Dear Leader take on any formal state posts. In 1992 he was made supreme commander of the Korean People's Army with the rank of marshal, even though the "Great General" (as he was now dubbed) had no military background - except maybe a few months in the air force after graduating. You can imagine how the real soldiers felt. The Great General has been deeply solicitous of the real generals ever since.
A year later he became chairman of the National Defense Commission, and still is. So it's Chairman Kim, if you please (like Chairman Mao), not president. The NDC used to be a sub-committee of the Central People's Commission (CPC): a kind of super-Cabinet, unique to North Korea, invented by an earlier constitutional overhaul back in 1972. Latterly, the CPC comprised mainly quasi-provincial governors: at the provincial level, the top state and party posts were fused. All that was swept away in 1998. The CPC was abolished - were the governors getting above themselves? - while the hitherto lowly and unwieldy State Administration Council was downsized and upgraded to a proper Cabinet. And the NDC became formally what it already was in practice: the top executive body of state. Defense rules, okay?
Actually, the party rules - in theory. But just what is happening to the KWP these days is one of North Korea's many mysteries. Rather belatedly, Kim Jong-il became its secretary-general in 1997 - but in a most irregular way, chosen by acclamation at provincial party assemblies rather than being duly elected at a party congress. There has been no full KWP congress since the 6th in 1980, when the Dear Leader emerged. Last year he told South Korean press moguls there'd be one soon, but so far there's no sign.
Even the Central Committee doesn't appear to have met during the seven years since Kim Il-sung died. Lately we don't even know for sure who's on the Politburo: the body that ultimately pulls the wires, behind the prime minister and Cabinet. In the typical communist dual structure, going back to Stalin, each state post is shadowed by a corresponding party apparatus - which is where the real power lies. But in North Korea now, a third hierarchy - the military - looms ever larger. Not only does the NDC rank above the Cabinet, but these days on the roll-call of bigwigs attending official ceremonies, the top brass - men like Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok, the KPA political director (he who took tea at the White House in full uniform last year, having nipped into the men's room to change) - outrank Politburo members.
In practice, as the most powerful military man in the land, Jo almost certainly outguns President Kim. No, not that president Kim - which is where we came in. Still confused? Bear with me: we're almost done. Three heads of state, remember? One of them, at least, has to attend to the banal formalities of the job: meeting and greeting foreign visitors, accepting ambassadors' credentials, that sort of stuff.
So who'll it be? Kim Il-sung, an affable chap, enjoyed a chat with foreigners. (Some still go see him, but his small-talk isn't what it was.) His son, by contrast, seemed a confirmed hermit - until he suddenly emerged to greet Kim Dae-jung, Jiang Zemin, Vladimir Putin, and more. Where does this new-found sociability leave the real President Kim? That's as in Kim Yong-nam: ex-foreign minister, Politburo No 2 - and now, president. In 1998, North Korea set up a new Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), its rubber-stamp parliament, to handle business when the SPA isn't in session (which is most of the time: This year it zipped through the budget and other agenda items in a single day.) The presidium president doubles as the DPRK's formal head of state - and Kim Yong-nam has had the job since its inception. Supreme power it ain't - but at least you get to go visit Laos. Heck, somebody has to do it.
source: Asia Times Online, July 10, 2001