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Evaluation of the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 7th WPKCC and the First Session of the 14th SPA
2019.04.12  Friday
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Cheong Seong-Chang

Evaluation of the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 7th WPKCC and
the First Session of the 14th SPA:
North Korea’s Dual Policy of Diplomacy and Economy and
Outlook on DPRK-U.S. Negotiations on Denuclearization and Sanctions Removal



No. 2019-14 (April 12, 2019)

Dr. Cheong Seong-Chang

Vice President for Research Planning, the Sejong Institute



On April 10, North Korea held the 4th plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPKCC) and the first session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) on the following day. In these two meetings, the North Korea regime largely reshuffled the leadership of the party and the state.


This reshuffle could be characterized in several aspects: strengthening foreign policy wing in the leadership, expanding the role of the State Affairs Commission (SAC), elevating Ri Man-gon, the newly-appointed director of the Organizational Leadership Department (also known as Organizational Guidance Department), as a heavyweight, reforming the Organizational Leadership Department of the WPKCC, bolstering the standing of cabinet elites, and completing the generational change of the leadership.


First, this leadership reshuffle is predicted to vastly shore up North Korea’s foreign policy line-up and to increase the role of the SAC in the future.


Since Kim Jong-un’s close affiliate Choe Ryong-hae replaces Kim Yong-nam, the nonagenarian elite in the foreign policy circle, as the president of the SPA Presidium who represents the DPRK internationally as the head of state, Choe is likely to have a broader role in foreign affairs. In the past, Kim Yong-nam did not have a seat at the SAC. However, Choe Ryong-hae assumes not only the president of the SPA Presidium but also the first vice-chairman of the SAC, granting him the position to oversee the negotiations with the U.S. by leading the members of the SAC including Director Ri Su-yong of WPKCC International Affairs Department, WPKCC United Front Department Director Kim Yong-chol who orchestrated the denuclearization talks until now, Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, and the First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui, among others. As a consequence, the relatively down-scaled influence of Director Kim Yong-chol of the United Front Department and the appointment of Choe Ryong-hae to head the negotiations with other countries appear to shed a positive light for the future of the DPRK-U.S. talks on denuclearization and removal of sanctions given that the former is primarily responsible for the failure of the Hanoi summit and the latter has a strong sway in the military as he previously assumed the director of the KPA General Political Bureau.


In the past, the SAC hardly had a hand in the negotiations with foreign powers. However, this time, the position of first vice-chairman has been established in the SAC and the foreign policy line-up of the Commission has been emboldened as it assembled the high profiles in the country’s foreign policy-making process including Vice Minister Choe Son-hui. Ms. Choe, who has participated in the talks with the U.S., was also elected as the member of the SPA Foreign Affairs Committee. This reflects Chairman Kim’s intention to endeavor keenly in negotiations with the U.S. for sanctions relief in the future.


With the previous experience as Kim Jong-un’s special envoy to China and Russia, Choe Ryong-hae, holding the titles of president of the SPA Presidium and the SAC first vice-chairman, is also expected to visit the U.S. as a special envoy. Provided that Mr. Choe emerges up front in the diplomatic endeavors with the U.S. instead of Kim Yong-chol who has been blinding and deafening Chairman Kim, the talks on denuclearization and sanctions between North Korea and the U.S. will possibly make a new breakthrough.


Second, it is noteworthy that newly-appointed Director Ri Man-gon of the WPKCC Organizational Leadership Department has elevated to a higher rank in the regime and that the WPKCC Organizational Leadership Department was reshuffled. Mr. Ri, the former director of the WPKCC Department of Munitions Industry, became a new key figure who holds multiple positions as he was appointed as the director of the Organizational Leadership Department on top of WPKCC vice-chairman, a WPK Central Military Commission member, and a SAC member.


Jo Yong-won who frequently accompanied Kim Jong-un in his public activities has joined in the core elite group of some thirty people as he was promoted as the first vice department director of the Organizational Leadership Department and elected as an alternate member of the WPKCC Political Bureau. Kim Jo-guk appears to substitute Hwang Pyong-so as the first vice department director for military affairs of the WPKCC Organizational Leadership Department. Kim Jo-guk also surfaced as a rising star as he became a member of the WPK Central Military Commission.


Thirdly, another of crucial aspects of this leadership reshuffle was the strengthened standings of the cabinet elites. Even though Pak Pong-ju, who spearheaded North Korea’s economic reforms and opening-up drive, is no longer the state premier, he became the WPKCC vice-chairman to assist Kim Jong-un’s decision-making in economic affairs. Vice-Chairman Pak also continues to assume the vice-chairman at the SAC, making him superior to Kim Jae-ryong, the new premier and member of the SAC. Premier Kim Jae-ryong, formerly the chief secretary of the WPK Jagang Provincial Committee, is also endowed with the right to have a say in military policy decisions as he was concurrently appointed as a member of both the WPK Central Military Commission and the SAC.


At the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 7th WPKCC, vice premiers Kim Tok-hun and Ri Ryong-nam were by-elected as the alternate members of the WPKCC Political Bureau, adding the weight of cabinet elites within the Political Bureau. Unconventionally, the April 12 issue of Rodong Sinmun published photos of the members of the cabinet from the premier to vice premiers and ministers. This could be interpreted as Kim Jong-un’s determination to overcome the ongoing economic hardships caused by the severe sanctions regime by granting more authority to the cabinet elites.


Fourthly, this leadership reshuffle is evaluated to have nearly completed the generational shift of key officials in North Korea’s state apparatuses. The president of the SPA Presidium is now 22 years younger as it changed from 91-year-old Kim Yong-nam to 69-year-old Choe Ryong-hae. 94-year-old Yang Hyong-sop left the seat of vice-president of the SPA Presidium for 66-year-old Thae Hyong-chol, the former minister of higher education. The SPA chairman was passed on to 64-year-old Pak Thae-song, a WPKCC vice-chairman, from 89-year-old Choe Thae-bok, resulting a drop of 25 years. Although newly-appointed Premier Kim Jae-ryong’s age remains unknown, he is understood to be much younger than his 80-year-old predecessor Pak Pong-ju. Thus, this reorganization is predicted to invigorate North Korea’s diplomatic and economic activities.


As such, the reorganization of the state and party leadership at the two meetings the 4th plenary meeting of the 7th WPKCC and the first session of the 14th SPA is construed to be North Korea’s act to endorse officially a policy of pursuing diplomacy and economy simultaneously. Accordingly, North Korea is predicted to rearrange fully the foreign policy line-up before actively approaching the U.S. to negotiate denuclearization and sanctions removal.


Therefore, Seoul and Washington should seek measures to implement an agreement in a phased and synchronized manner after having a comprehensive timetable on North Korea’s denuclearization measures and corresponding measures from the U.S., especially regarding the removal of sanctions. The U.S. should provide a list of sanctions to pardon or remove depending on North Korea’s steps for denuclearization what sanctions to lift when North Korea decommissions the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and dismantles intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. It is necessary to make North Korea have expectations that the sanctions will be lifted sooner in accordance if North Korea proceeds with several measures of denuclearization swiftly and simultaneously.



Translator’s note: This is a summarized unofficial translation of the original article that was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.

The views expressed here are author's own, and do not necessarily represent those of the Sejong Institute.