With Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, playing a more central role in state affairs, the frequent appearance of the expression “Party Center” in the country’s state-run media has led to speculation that she is in a position to succeed her brother.
So far, however, there is no evidence of the domestic political propaganda campaigns that occurred in the past whenever a new candidate was being groomed to become a successor. These campaigns included efforts to “deify” the successor and promote their greatness.
Indeed, the expression “Party Center” has appeared in the past whenever a leadership change was set to occur in North Korea. It was commonly used in 1974 when Kim Jong Il was put forward as the successor to Kim Il Sung, as well as in 2008 when Kim Jong Un was nominated as his father’s successor.
While the expression is also used as a nickname for the Supreme Leader and as short-hand for the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, it is generally interpreted as a reference to an upcoming successor in North Korea due to historical precedent.
The current evidence suggests, however, that Kim Yo Jong is not likely being groomed to become her brother’s successor.
KIM YO JONG RISING?
The expression “Party Center” has appeared in the North Korean media amid Kim Yo Jong’s high-profile role in launching an “offensive” against South Korea. Based on this, some experts have suggested that North Korea is taking steps to begin the succession process.
At a forum to commemorate the release of his memoirs on June 10, Jeong Se-hyun, who served as the unification minister during the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun administrations and who is currently the executive vice-chairman of the National Unification Advisory Council, stated: “While it has not been confirmed as fact, I heard that [people in North Korea] have been been ordered to refer to Kim Yo Jong as the Party Center.”
This assessment stands in contrast to reports from the country received by Daily NK. “The Rodong Sinmun used the term Party Center, but there is nothing more to it than that. There has never been an official order to address comrade Kim Yo Jong as the Party Center,” a Daily NK source in the country said on June 18.
“It is true that the expression was used in the past during the process of grooming a new leader, but nowadays it is used to refer to comrades Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong,” he added.
In the past, North Korea is known to have carried out domestic education campaigns whenever a new leader was being groomed in order to extol the greatness of the incoming leader and their achievements. This was the case for Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un.
In 1974, a party document called “The Greatness of Comrade Kim Jong Il, Our Dear Leader” was produced and released as study materials. This document highlighted Kim Jong Il’s achievements in establishing the monolithic ideological system and formalizing Kimilsung-ism. Letters of loyalty were sent from each department in the communist party, stating, in part: “We passionately support the continuation of the Juche revolutionary line [the Kim family], and will faithfully trust and follow only the Dear Leader, Comrade Kim Jong Il.”
Each letter contained the expression, “The Undying Light of the Party Center.” This was in reference to the fact that the light in Kim Jong Il’s office remained switched on even at night and was intended to highlight Kim’s dedication to the people: a leader working tirelessly day and night to continue the legacy of the Juche Revolution.
Similar scenes played out in the late 2000s when Kim Jong Un was put forward as the successor to his father. At a time when North Korea was focused on military-first politics, a party document entitled “The Greatness of Comrade Kim Jong Un, the Respected Young General” was released that highlighted his military achievements. The first place the document was distributed to was the military’s political bureau.
The party document was followed by a letter of loyalty from the General Staff Department (GSD) of the military, which read “We accept the Young General, Comrade Kim Jong Un, as our commander.” Notably, the military took the lead in supporting Kim Jong Un’s succession, lifting a banner on the front-lines that read “We will lay down our lives for the Party Center, which revolves around the Young General, Comrade Kim Jong Un.”
Songs were also composed to extol the greatness of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, notably “Carrying on the Family Line with Great Loyalty” and “Footsteps.”
According to Daily NK’s source, however, there is currently no campaign taking place in North Korea to highlight the greatness of Kim Yo Jong. There are reports, however, that a document entitled “The Mt. Paekdu Bloodline and Party Decisions” was given to high-ranking officials in the Cabinet, judicial agencies and the military on June 3.
The three-page document included a line that stated: “Let’s not forget that following the orders of Comrade Kim Yo Jong is how we support the Party Center’s ideology and leadership, and we must obey the Party Center – the leadership of our revolution – with trust, good conscience and faith.”
The existence of this document suggests that the country’s leadership is trying to increase Kim Yo Jong’s support within the party, military and ordinary North Koreans by “artificially” connecting her with the broader ideology of the regime.
“[The document] sends the message that obeying Comrade Kim Yo Jong means accepting the Party Center’s leadership, and reaffirms that she is a firm second-in-command who is fully capable of leading in harmony alongside Comrade Kim Jong Un,” the source told Daily NK.
“[However], this is simply a campaign to build up her experience and abilities to win support from officials and citizens until Comrade Kim Jong Un’s son is ready to take over as successor. ‘Party Center’ in this context does not refer to a successor in an official or unofficial way,” he added.
The term “Party Center” did appear during the process of deifying Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un before they took over the leaders of North Korea; the source’s report suggests, however, that the use of the expression is really part of efforts to lay the foundation for Kim Yo Jong to exercise her authority as an official second-in-command, backer and proxy of Kim Jong Un.
“[North Korea] is currently in the process of priming Kim Yo Jong as [Kim Jong Un’s] firm second-in-command so that the party and military can become accustomed to taking orders from her,” the source further explained. “Government officials believe that [this effort] originated in the unimaginable sense of crisis [felt among the leadership] when [Kim Jong Un] suffered from a cardiovascular system-related issue.”
THE PATH TO ABSOLUTE POWER
If this is true, then what is Kim Yo Jong’s current standing and what is the extent of her authority? In a statement published on June 13, Kim said that “The right to taking [sic] the next action against the enemy will be entrusted to the General Staff of our army.” Ultimately, North Korea was giving prior warning to its destruction of the Kaesong Inter-Korean Liaison Office. When this threat became reality, some analysts have come to believe she has the authority to mobilize and command the North Korean military.
“While Comrade Kim Yo Jong has the power to lead party organizations and carry out propaganda activities, economic projects and operations that target South Korea, she cannot make unilateral decisions on matters of great national importance such as [the country’s] nuclear and missile programs, national defense or operations against the United States,” Daily NK’s source said, adding, “[North Korean] officials believe she will continue to play a more supporting role for Kim Jong Un.”
The source did point out that Kim Yo Jong does have access to all aspects of national affairs, which means her actions have the tacit support of Kim Jong Un.
“[North Korean authorities] are currently making sure that everyone in the country – from party members, soldiers, to ordinary citizens – understand that,” he added.
The source concluded that Kim Yo Jong “has the authority to participate in and issue orders across all facets of national affairs, but is in a separate category from ordinary officials who are held responsible and punished if they make mistakes. She is on the path towards absolute power – a great figure who does not make mistakes.”
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