The Workers Party Congress in North Korea continues to produce the occasional surprise. We already learned that Kim Jong-un, the country’s diminutive dictator, has admitted that his five-year economic plan for his nation launched in 2016 has failed. He also announced that he plans to return to the production of nuclear warheads and advanced missiles, despite the disastrous effect this has had on the health and prosperity of his nation.
But the gang at the communist party HQ had a nice surprise for him this week. (Not that anyone, including Kim, was very surprised.) He was named General Secretary of the hermit kingdom, a title previously held by both his father and grandfather. Given that all of the power in that country is in Kim’s hands already, it’s not that much of a shock. But the real surprise was this his sister, Kim Yo Jong, received what amounted to a demotion. Having previously been seen as a rising force in the family, she was not even named to the Politburo. This looks like a slap in the face to the sister. (Wall Street Journal, subscription required)
Kim Jong Un has given himself a lofty new title and removed his ascendant sister from North Korea’s inner circle of powerful elites.
On the sixth day of a rare Workers’ Party Congress meeting, Mr. Kim was elevated from chairman to general secretary, a rank previously held by his late father and grandfather. North Korean state media described the role as “the brain of the revolution.” But as a practical matter, Mr. Kim’s control over the cloistered regime remains as absolute as ever.
Meanwhile, Kim Yo Jong, the leader’s younger sister and a confidante, wasn’t named to the Politburo, the party’s top decision-making body, in an apparent demotion from her prior standing as an alternative member. Some Pyongyang experts had expected Ms. Kim could be promoted to a full-time seat.
It’s not as if Kim Yo Jong was missing entirely. That would have led to questions as to whether or not she might have had “an accident.” She was there, but seated behind her brother and reportedly not having much to say.
So what happened to Kim Yo Jong? For a while there, Kim was handing off all sorts of responsibilities to his sister, including influential advisory posts with actual authority. When various rumors about the tyrant’s failing health were making the rounds, there was even talk that she might succeed him as ruler. It’s not looking that way now. A few possibilities come to mind, though. The leading candidate probably involves the known fact that the various regional lords in North Korea, along with many men inside his military and leadership circles, are “old-fashioned” men who don’t like the idea of a woman being in a position of power. It’s not inconceivable that Kim has been hearing from people who he relies on for support and the pressure to lower her profile got to him.
Of course, the dictator is notoriously temperamental. There were rumors going around for quite a while that he’d actually had one of his own relatives executed. Once his sister started making some decision on her own she may have said or done something to anger Kim and he simply decided to kick her to the curb. We may never know.
There was a time when I’d hoped that, much like the Soviet Union, North Korea’s tyrants would eventually starve the country to the point where it collapsed under its own weight. The nation could then devolve into civil war between the various warlords and perhaps China could move in and eliminate them to avoid having such an unstable situation on their doorstep. That no longer looks to be the case. Both Russia and China have preferred to keep a buffer on the borders and are helping North Korea out by skirting sanctions.
Unfortunately, this also means that Kim gets to keep playing with his toys. I’d still like to believe that even Kim Jong-un isn’t crazy enough to actually launch a nuke at someone. If he did, someone (probably us) would have to move in and just flatten what little civilization and military structure exists in the nation, leading to some uncomfortable conversations with the Chinese and the Russians. But can we really be sure he wouldn’t do it? I’d say we’re nowhere near 100% on that issue.
It’s just a shame that President Trump didn’t find some sort of ace up his sleeve to get Kim to begin serious denuclearization efforts in the hopes of having the sanctions lifted and a resumption of normal trade. But plenty of people had predicted from the beginning that there simply was no deal on the table for Trump to close because Kim was too dishonest to hold up his end of the arrangement. I don’t have much in the way of hope that Joe Biden will figure that puzzle out either. So we appear to be stuck with the status quo for the foreseeable future.