Today’s 4th Chosun Workers’ Party Delegates’ Conference in Pyongyang saw Kim Jong Eun elevated to 'Chosun Workers’ Party 1st Secretary'. This represents the creation of a new Party position, one that has allowed Kim Jong Il to be retained as ‘eternal Chosun Workers’ Party General Secretary’.
Pre-conference speculation had been unanimous in assuming that Kim would retain some form of ‘eternal’ position similar to that of ‘eternal Premier Kim Il Sung’, who was handed that position following his death in July 1994, but few had predicted that it would be that of General Secretary. In any case, the aim of retaining Kim Jong Il as part of the process of ruling in accordance with his "last instructions" has been accomplished at today's conference, and Kim Jong Eun has been left to rule as First Secretary.
As it happens, while the position is new in North Korea, there is precedent in the wider communist world for the leader of the Party to be a First Secretary. Notably, in October 1952 at the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the office of ‘General Secretary’ by which Stalin had led the country since 1922 was abolished, replaced in September 1953 following Stalin’s death with that of ‘First Secretary’ by the government of Nikita Krushchev.
However, that position was relatively short-lived, and the First Secretary was once again renamed at the 23rd Party Congress in 1966. There, leader Leonid Brezhnev became General Secretary once again, a position that remained until the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991.
Other countries followed the lead of the Soviet Union at the time, reflecting the dominance of Moscow over the communist bloc. For example, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia replaced the role of General Secretary with that of First Secretary in 1953, returning to the original format in 1971, while the Communist Party of Cuba has had a First Secretary since its creation in 1965, and it is this position through which Raul Castro, the younger brother of national founder Fidel Castro, continues to rule.
But above all, in a country such as North Korea where rule is highly centralized and personality driven, the name of the position through which the leader rules is not actually of much meaningful importance, as today’s events reveal. In essence, if Kim Jong Eun has the strength and the necessary tight-knit backing then he should be able to rule, but if the opposite turns out to be true then the name of his position will not be sufficient to save him.
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