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Can the Authority of the “Head of State” of the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly be Yielded to the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission?
2019.04.17  Wednesday
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Cheong Seong-Chang

Can the Authority of the “Head of State” of the President of the Presidium
of the Supreme People’s Assembly be Yielded to the Chairman of the
State Affairs Commission?

 


No. 2019-15 (April 17, 2019)

Dr. Cheong Seong-Chang

Vice President for Research Planning, the Sejong Institute

softpower@sejong.org

 

 


 

The First Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea convened on April 11, 2019. A newly-appointed President of the Presidium of SPA Choe Ryong-hae proposed the SPA to ordain the current Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) Kim Jong-un as “chairman of the State Affairs Commission (SAC) of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the post of the supreme representative of all the Korean people and the supreme leader of the Republic.”

 

Several experts predicted that President Choe’s usage of the phrase “the supreme representative of all the Korean people” in reference to the chairman of the SAC suppose the possibility of ceding the president’s entitlement of representing the country or, in other words, his standing abroad as the “head of state” to the chairman of the SAC by amending North Korea’s constitution at this session of the SPA.

 

However, there are two major problems with such assertion.

 

First, the expression of “the supreme representative of all the Korean people” simply refers to the fact that the position of Chairman Kim represents the entire people of North Korea, which implies the case dissimilar to other general deputies of the SPA who stand for the residents of a specific constituency. And thus, it does not mean that the chairman represents the state.

 

If North Korea intended to hand over the authority of the “head of state” to Chairman Kim through its constitutional amendment, President Choe should have used the phrase, such as “the chairman of the SAC of the DPRK who is the supreme leader and the supreme representative of the Republic,” in his speech to refer to the status of the chairman of the SAC.

 

Secondly the authority of the “head of state” is the inherited right of the president of the SPA Presidium. It is illogical to elect Choe Ryong-hae as the president of the Presidium of the SPA and, at the same time, to concede his exclusive power to the chairman of the SAC.

 

Provided that North Korea intended to yield the authority of representing the state to the chairman of the SAC through constitutional reform, the existing position of “the president of the Presidium of the SPA” should be abolished and Choe Ryong-hae would be placed as “the chair of the Standing Committee of the SPA,” which does not hold the authority to represent the state. (Source: Seong-Chang Cheong, The Status and Role of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly under the Kim Jong-un Regime, Seongnam: the Sejong Institute, 2014)

 

The Article 117 of the North Korean constitution stipulates that “The President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly represents the State and receives the credentials and letters of recall of diplomatic representatives accredited by foreign countries.” And such role of representing the state, which the president of the SPA Presidium have carried out, generally consists of receiving the credentials and letters of recall of foreign countries’ diplomats, meeting the representatives of foreign governments, parties, and civil groups, and sending messages of congratulation and condolence abroad.

 

Considering the desperate situation that North Korea faces super-powerful economic sanctions by the international community and subsequently aggravating economy, Kim Jong-un, without doubt, needs to concentrate all his diplomatic effort to the negotiation with the U.S. Then under such circumstances, would Chairman Kim have capacity to receive the documents from foreign diplomatic representatives and deal with politicians and other private representatives from outside countries with the authority of the “head of state,” which was originally bestowed upon the President of the SPA Presidium?

 

Even before the constitutional reform in 1972, the authority of the “head of state,” such as the appointment and recall of ambassadors and consuls at foreign points and the reception of letters of credence and dismissal of foreign envoys or diplomatic delegation, appertained to the Presidium of the SPA, as it is now. However, through the constitutional reform in 1972, the authority of the “head of state” was transferred to the president (jusǒk in Korean) of North Korea; the Presidium of the SPA was abolished; “the Standing Committee of the SPA” was newly established in replacement of the Presidium, but it primarily exercised the legislative power.

 

When Kim Il-sung amended the constitution in 1972 and created the position of “the President of the DPRK” who “served as the head of state and represented the national sovereignty of the DPRK,” North Korea still faced rather favorable external and internal environment and was able to deal with the credentials and letters of recall of foreign diplomats or meet numerous overseas government officials, politicians, and nongovernmental delegates. Furthermore, Kim Il-sung nominated his son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor in 1974, and Kim Jong-il swiftly seized control of the WPK and assisted his father. As such, Kim Il-sung was able to perform his diplomatic activities as the representative of the state until his death.

 

But in 1994, soon after the decease of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il encountered harsh isolation from the international community, and serious economic crisis followed. In order to overcome such hardships, Kim Jong-il began to administrate state affairs with the WPK and the army as the center, repealed the system of “the President of the DPRK” that represented the national sovereignty, newly established the position of “the Chairman of the National Defense Commission of the DPRK” with no authority of representing the state, entrusted the Cabinet with economic affairs, and, finally, reassigned the role of a ceremonial figurehead to the president of the SPA Presidium.

 

Since the inauguration in 2011, Kim Jong-un also has managed state affairs around the WPK and the army. Moreover, he currently faces an important task to prevent further deterioration of the country’s current economic situation resulting from the international community’s powerful sanctions, which was implemented as the response to the 6th nuclear test and the 3rd intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test in 2017. And such circumstance necessitates Chairman Kim to invest all available diplomatic capabilities in the negotiation with the U.S. And thus, it is hard to presume Chairman Kim to reform the constitution, hand over the authority of the “head of state” of the president of the Presidium of the SPA to the chairman of the SAC, receive letters of credence and recall of diplomats, and answer to myriad delegates from foreign governments, political parties and private organizations.

 

Currently, Article 100 of the North Korean constitution stipulates the chairman of the SAC as “the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” and no doubt Kim Jong-un is the supreme leader of North Korea. Therefore, devolving the authority of the president of the SPA Presidium as the “head of state” to the chairman of the SAC does not substantially strengthen the power of Kim Jong-un.

 

Nevertheless, several experts assume the external status as the head of state of the president of the SPA Presidium would have transferred to the chairman of the SAC since Choe Ryong-hae was also elected as the first vice-chairman of the SAC, which is ranked right below the Chairman of the SAC Kim Jong-un, at the First Session of the 14th SPA. However, even before that, the Presidium of the SPA was placed lower than the SAC in the hierarchy of North Korea’s political organization. In other words, President Choe’s nomination as the first vice-chairman of the SAC does not signify any change in the relationship between the chairman of the SAC and the president of the SPA Presidium.

 

Although the president of the Presidium of the SPA externally enjoyed the symbolic “head of state” and held legislative power in the past, he barely or never exerted his influence in the area of international negotiations or economic affairs. On the other hand, this time the new President of the SPA Presidium Choe Ryong-hae has also elected as the first vice-chairman of the SAC and thus, is positioned above the current Vice-Chairman of the SAC and the former Premier Pak Pong-ju, the new Premier and a Member of the SAC Kim Jae-ryong, or Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho. In this way, President Choe’s power as the president of the SPA Presidium has enlarged in essence.

 

The constitutional reform conducted at the session of the SPA on this April 11 might have chiefly focused on the installation of the first vice-chairman position of the SAC and the expansion of the power of the SAC and the chairman of the SAC. North Korea may have attached the title of “the supreme representative of all Korean people” to the chairman of the SAC through this constitutional reform, but the possibility of handing over the authority of the “head of the state” is realistically low.

 

The current “head of state” of Germany is the President, but not many people in South Korea are aware of the name of the German president in contrast to that of German chancellor. Such phenomenon indicates that German chancellor mainly deals with the summit diplomacy and the authority of Germany’s “head of state” is essentially limited. As such, the title of “head of state” does not necessarily signify the highest position in a country. And thus, one could reach a misdirected conclusion if he or she understands the position of the “head of state” under different political systems with the view of the “head of state” under the presidential system who yields immense political power.