The Debate

Kim Jong-un Continues to Consolidate Power

Kim Jong-un was ‘re-elected’ to the top of the National Defense Commission, but he still has work to do.

Ankit Panda
Kim Jong-un Continues to Consolidate Power
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday, Kim Jong-un was re-elected to the top of North Korea’s highest governing agency by the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s parliament. More specifically, Kim was re-elected to serve as the first chairman of the National Defense Commission, a position held by his father and grandfather, and one that effectively guarantees total control of the state’s military apparatus. As with all elections in North Korea, the event was largely ceremonial, with the  Supreme People’s Assembly serving as little more than a rubber stamp rather than providing any sort of legitimate democratic mandate for Kim Jong-un’s leadership.

As of now, Kim Jong-un remains stable at the top of North Korea’s power architecture, but there are reasons to believe that he is still in the process of consolidating his leadership, two years after the death of his father. Externally, North Korea continues to wrangle with international sanctions that have crippled its economy. Internally, Kim had to ensure that his leadership was not undermined by other factions with the Korean Workers’ Party or the military. In achieving this, he ended up purging several significant North Korean leaders from his father’s regime, including most famously his uncle Jang Song-thaek, who was Kim’s effective second-in-charge.

The meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly is worth scrutinizing in this sense as well. The meeting will see several top government posts and officials being replaced, as well as deliberation over this year’s budget. The Assembly presents an important forum for Kim Jong-un to consolidate his leadership by further purging those who might challenge his leadership. The Assembly’s meeting comes after 687 officials were “elected” in March during the North’s parliamentary elections.

The New York Times speculates that Kim would opt to fill “key governing posts left vacant by his purges with younger cadres who would owe their loyalty directly to him.” Age seems to be a factor within the North Korean leadership, with certain older leaders either resenting Kim’s leadership or attempting to form factions to undermine him. Indeed, before Kim executed Jang Song-thaek, one of the fears was that Jang himself was beginning to serve as an alternate locus of leadership and influence within the highest levels of North Korean government.

With statements by the North earlier this month that it would carry out a “new form of nuclear test,” observers around the region are on high alert. Japan has already announced that it will shoot down any detected ballistic missile launches from North Korea.

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Despite Kim Jong-un’s attempts to consolidate power, there may still be much work left to be done. A report by notes that several reports coming from within North Korea suggest that a new wave of political dissent is burgeoning within the country, particularly from “junior members of the elite” that “have begun to privately discuss political issues.” These trends don’t immediately threaten Kim Jong-un’s power in any real way and the situation in North Korea is still quite far from openly anti-government sentiments developing among the people. still, such factors will likely condition the manner in which Kim decides to govern in the coming years. He is at somewhat of a crossroads; either he takes a conciliatory approach, possibly reaping the economic rewards of such a decision, or he swings full speed towards increased repression.