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North Korea: Political heavyweight as head of state

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Zubair Yaqoob
The author has diversified experience in investigative journalism. He is Chief content editor at wnobserver.com
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March 2019: North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong takes his train to Pyongyang Station after meeting with US President Donald Trump in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. As colorful as on this day, the gloomy station is rare: A row of cheering North Koreans stand trellis, a child presented to the returned hero, as the state propaganda never tires to emphasize, a bunch of flowers. Then Kim continues to the first guard of his state apparatus, at least to those politicians who had stayed in Pyongyang: Kim Yong-nam, the protocol head of state of North Korea is at the top – he is the first to shake hands and congratulate Kim Jong-un. An almost cordial moment – and one of his last official acts in the eyes of the world public. Because Kim Yong-nam is now replaced.

In North Korea, the political power in the public image is almost exclusively tailored to Kim Jong-un. But Kim Yong-nam may be the second most famous politician. The 91-year-old foreign politician was already under state founder Kim il Sung and his son Kim Jong-il was Foreign Minister from 1983 to 1998 – a friendly figurehead abroad. But now it’s all over with decades of leadership: at the inaugural session of Parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, MEPs elected Cho Ryong-hae head of state this week.

There may be several reasons for the replacement: Firstly, Kim Yong-nam is so old at the age of 91 that observers have been wondering for years how long he can take on the strain of the office. As President of the European Parliament, he not only received the foreign delegations touring the isolated country, but also led North Korean delegations abroad, most recently to Beijing and Moscow. On the other hand, the aged foreign politician within the Pyongyang power arithmetic counts as a man of yesterday: loyal, but also a former employee of the first two dictators Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. He is not a retainer Kim

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That he was in office for so long is remarkable enough. Kim Jong-nam, unlike other senior figures such as Kim Jong-us, such as Jang Song-thaek, who was executed in 2013, survived all “cleansing waves” that the young dictator ordered after taking office in December 2011. Apparently, Kim Yong-nam said, although useful to the young ruler, but hardly dangerous. On the contrary: Kim Yong-nam is more likely to be considered as a weak decision maker. The powerless office of the protocol-based head of state matched in this respect to him. In communist regimes, it is not the formal head of state who holds power in power, but the head of the almighty state party – in North Korea this is Kim Jong-un.

However, it is interesting to know who will be the successor at the head of parliament: Choe Ryong-hae, the new head of state of North Korea, is a political heavyweight in Pyongyang. South Korean media described him several times as the number two behind the almighty dictator, in the powerful State Commission, he is the deputy Kim Jong-us. The new face of the regime will therefore be a man who holds the reigns in domestic politics. The choice, which the pseudo-parliament just approves anyway, has of course been made by Kim Jong-un himself: In this respect, it can be interpreted as a further step in the now almost eight-year power consolidation Kims. He brings “his people” into the narrower power circles, his sister and close associate Kim Yo -jong received in the election in March a seat in the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Whether Choe can present itself as a figurehead abroad, as a friendly face of the regime, is questionable: He is on the sanctions list of the United States. Its Finance Minister Steve Mnuchin accused him of being “responsible for brutal state censorship, human rights abuses and abuse”.

However, the generation change in leadership has been completed: Choe was born in 1950, at a time when the Korean peninsula was already divided into two states. Kim Yong-nam grew up in Japanese-occupied Korea and spent his childhood as a subject of the Japanese Tenno. In his speeches, a possible reunification of the two Koreas was always a central issue – whether this will also be the case with the power politician Choe Ryong-hae, remains to be seen.

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