Supreme People's Assembly
The Second Session of the 14th Supreme People's Assembly on August 29, 2019 / Image: Rodong Sinmun

During the Second Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, on August 29, North Korea again revised its constitution, the second time it has done so this year. There are two main points I would like to highlight about the latest constitutional revisions. 

Kim bolsters power of State Affairs Commission chairman

First, the latest changes greatly bolster the power of the chairman of the State Affairs Commission. Choe Ryong Hae, the president of the Supreme People’s Assembly Presidium, said in his legislative report that he reviewed and adopted an agenda to modify the Socialist Constitution (referred to in North Korea as the “Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il Constitution”) to provide a firm legal guarantee under Kim Jong Un’s monolithic guidance. The amended constitution is accordingly aimed at ensuring Kim Jong Un’s “monolithic guidance” over all state affairs. 

The most notable part of the revisions is that as the chairman of state affairs, Kim Jong Un now has authority over the party (the Workers’ Party of Korea, or WPK). In his legislative report, Choe said that he added a provision to ensure that the State Affairs Commission chairman is not elected as a deputy to the Supreme People’s Assembly. He said that this revision “constitutionally revises the status of the State Affairs Commission chairman as the Supreme Leader of the Party, state and armed forces of the DPRK.” This means that as the chairman, Kim Jong Un will be involved in the party’s business. 

Increase of the State Affairs Commission’s authority

The second most notable part of the constitutional revisions is the firming up of the State Affairs Commission’s authority compared to the past. In the first revisions to the constitution earlier this year, the authority of the commission was greatly reduced. The revisions reduced the role of the organization and simply stated that it was the “highest organ of state power” and its “highest policy guidance organization.” This wording relegated the authority wielded by the commission to matters outside of national defense.

The constitutional revisions made in August, however, not only reinstated the role of the State Affairs Commission but further enhanced its authority. During his legislative report, Choe remarked that “the modification and supplementation of the duty and authority of the State Affairs Commission, including the stipulation that it supervises and takes measures for the implementation of the orders given by the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the decrees, decisions and instructions made by the commission, further cemented the legal authority of the organization as the pivotal body materializing the monolithic guidance of the Supreme Leader and further perfected our own style state administration system” (see Rodong Sinmun, August 30, “Second Session of 14th Supreme People’s Assembly DPRK Held”).

In light of the new August revisions, it appears that orders given by the chairman of the State Affairs Commission will include matters of national defense along with matters concerning the party. The constitution as amended earlier this year did in fact give the commission authority over national defense but it was a unique authority belonging only to the chairman of the State Affairs Commission, not the commission as a whole. However, through the latest August revisions, this authority over national defense will be shared with the whole of the organization. Furthermore, while the chairman of the State Affairs Commission can now oversee matters relating to the party, it is key to understand that this authority can also be shared with the commission. In the past, the chairman of the State Affairs Commission was only able to oversee state organs outside of the party; the latest changes have essentially put the party under the command of the chairman and also allows the commission to have authority over the party. 

Turning back the clock to the Kim Jong Il era? 

There is another area to highlight in the revisions, namely that Choe mentioned that the “[State Affairs Commission] is a pivotal body materializing the monolithic guidance of the Supreme Leader.” Choe essentially explained that through the latest revisions, the state administration system was further perfected. It appears, however, that the makeup of the State Affairs Commission is now very similar to that of the National Defense Commission of the Kim Jong Il era. Essentially, North Korea’s latest constitutional revisions in August have placed the chairman of the State Affairs Commission at the same level as the chairman of the National Defense Commission. The revisions have also greatly increased the role of the State Affairs Commission to the same level as the National Defense Commission, which was North Korea’s most prominent state organ during the Kim Jong Il era.

In his earlier constitutional amendments this year, Kim Jong Un purposely excluded “military first politics” and “military first ideology” to the constitution by deleting words related to that Kim Jong Il era policy. In his latest revisions, Kim still has refrained from promoting the military first policy, but has nonetheless made the State Affairs Commission mirror that of Kim Jong Il’s National Defense Commission. In short, because it wields higher authority, the State Affairs Commission can oversee the party.

This, in my opinion, is an overreach by Kim, although some may disagree because Kim has made many efforts to put the party at the forefront of control in the party since gaining power. Then, one can ask, why did Kim Jong Un place the title and authority of the chairman of the State Affairs Commission above the party? The easy answer is that the chairman of the State Affairs Commission is the title Kim Jong Un uses on the world stage. Also, within in North Korea, he is most often referred to as the chairman of that commission. In fact, as the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un does in fact command the party and he may have revised the constitution to ensure his authority over the party is included in the title of chairman of the State Affairs Commission as well. 

Just as Kim Jong Il gradually expanded and consolidated the authority of the chairman of the National Defense Commission, his son may be following in his father’s footsteps. This move also suggests that Kim Jong Un considers the current situation facing North Korea a national crisis and that a unified command system is vital. In this regard, those who believe that the latest constitutional revisions are aimed at making Kim the leader of a “normal country” appear to have misplaced hopes. 

A Daily NK interview with Professor Jong on idolization of Kim Jong Il in North Korea can be found here.

*Translated by Yongmin Lee

Views expressed in Commentaries do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.