A key expression that helps interpret North Korea today is the principle of “Our State First.” The first known use of the term was in the November 20, 2017 edition of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, where it appeared alongside “Our People First” in the Political Commentary section.
Since that time, the national flag has been flown more often on occasions when the Workers’ Party of Korea flag would normally have been used. A recent example is the “Defense Development Exhibition ‘Self-Defense-2021’” in Pyongyang, which opened on October 11. Despite the fact that this was part of an event celebrating the 76th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, on this occasion national flags outnumbered Party flags.
On New Year’s Day 2019, a song titled “Our National Flag” was released and went on to become widely promoted as President of the State Affairs Commission Kim Jong-un’s favorite song. The President’s New Year Address that day referred to the principle of “Our State First” instead of “Korean People First.” The crucial point here is that the address focused on North Korea [“Our State”], rather than on “Our People” and “Korean People,” concepts that encompass the peoples of both North and South Korea. The essence of “Our State First” should be seen as the will to preserve the Kim Dynasty rather than as the desire to abandon the unification of North and South Korea.
On August 11 this year, Director of the Unified Front Department of the Central Committee Kim Yong-chol directed fire at the Moon Jae-in administration, saying, “The South Korean authorities started again the frantic military exercises [U.S.-South Korea Joint Military Exercises] regarding our state as the enemy.” He went on, “It is clear that there is no other option for us as South Korea and the U.S. opted for confrontation with our state, without making any change.” It is notable that this is the first time North Korea has used the expression “our state” in a statement directed at South Korea. The use of the expression “our state” does not create a sense of unease for a foreign country like the United States. For South Korea, however, it had a major impact. This is due to the fact that the historic 1991 North-South Basic Agreement stipulated that “their [South and North Korea] relationship, not being a relationship as between states, is a special one constituted temporarily in the process of unification,” and that the spirit of that Agreement has endured for the past thirty years.
More than seventy years have passed since Korea was divided into North and South. The fierce competition between the two regimes during the Cold War era is now a thing of the past. South Korea has become a developed country and its defense budget is ranked among the top ten in the world. In contrast, North Korea remains the poorest country in Asia, despite possessing nuclear weapons. North Korea has confronted the reality that unification between North and South Korea is unlikely in the foreseeable future and has chosen to protect its own regime.
This aligns with the stance of President Moon Jae-in, who advocates “peaceful coexistence.” The goal is to accept the fact that the regimes of the two countries are different and at least avoid provoking an armed conflict. The handshake exchanged between the leaders of North and South Korea does not signal that reunification is closer. Quite the opposite in fact: there is no choice but to advocate “unification” while in reality further cementing the division. The North and South may be regarded as strange bedfellows with different agendas.
The fact that the Kim Jong-un administration has begun to give prominence to the state does not mean that it is neglecting the Party, however. As is the case in other socialist countries such as the former Soviet Union and China, the Party’s supremacy over the state is guaranteed by the constitution. What is gathering pace rapidly now is best described as the identification of Party and state.
An event that took place in September may be viewed in this context. On September 9, a military parade was held for the first time in ten years to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the nation’s founding. Standing in the center of the podium were Kim Jong-un and five other members of the Presidium of the Politburo. In other words, the Politburo of the Workers’ Party took precedence over members of the State Affairs Commission at a national event. On September 29, Kim Yo-jong was appointed as a member of the State Affairs Commission while retaining his official position in the Party. This is a clear indication of the unification of Party and state.
It is somewhat premature to speculate on what will eventuate from the apparent shift toward an emphasis on the state. At this point, the aspect meriting attention is the potential revival of the Juseok system (presidential system). Already since February of this year, the translation in the North Korean media of Kim Jong-un’s current official position has changed from Chairman of the State Affairs Commission to President of the State Affairs Commission (Kukmu-uiwonjang). The change is motivated by a desire to demonstrate that he is a leader on a par with the presidents of the United States and China. It may be that North Korea has taken its cue from Cuba, which revived its presidential system in April 2019.
Only the English name has been changed. At this stage, the Korean name remains Kukmu-uiwonjang (Chairman of the State Affairs Commission). If the Korean name were changed to Juseok, Kim Jong-un would achieve his goal of being ranked alongside Kim Il-sung, the founding father of the nation. This year, the North Korean media began referring to Kim Jong-un using the honorific Suryeong (Supreme Leader), along with Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. A decade after assuming power, Kim Jong-un seems to have gained confidence in his grip on the regime. His elevation to Suryeong may be a preliminary move ahead of his appointment to the nation’s top post of Juseok.