SEOUL (AFP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has had his official party title changed, state media reported yesterday, assuming a position previously held by his late father in what analysts said was a move to bolster his authority.
The North Korean economy is struggling in the face of self-imposed coronavirus isolation, and is subject to multiple sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.
At the same time, nuclear talks with the United States (US) have been deadlocked since the collapse of the Hanoi summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in February 2019.
The ruling Workers’ Party of Korea “unanimously adopted” a decision to elect Kim as general secretary at its congress on Sunday, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
“All the delegates expressed full support with stormy applause in great excitement,” it said.
The South Korean military said it detected signs that a military parade may have been staged on Sunday night for the congress.
The last such gathering five years ago had named Kim as party chairman in what was largely seen as a formal coronation for the leader, who was in his early 30s at the time.
The new title comes after Kim pledged at the meeting to strengthen his nuclear-armed nation’s military capabilities, and called the US his country’s “foremost principal enemy”.
He also admitted that “almost all sectors fell a long way short of the set objectives” in North Korea’s previous economic plan.
Experts said the new nomenclature was largely symbolic, with the congress changing job titles to reinstate a previously scrapped party secretariat system.
North Korea is more isolated than ever after closing its borders last January to protect itself against the coronavirus that first emerged in neighbour and key ally China.
“It’s another indirect way of admitting that plans introduced in 2016 – including the new chairman system – did not really work out,” said defector-turned-researcher Ahn Chan-il of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul. “Kim wanted to create a new image for himself and his era – that’s different from his father’s – by becoming a ‘chairman’, but it looks like he feels the need to stress his connection to his father in order to consolidate his leadership during this difficult time.”
Kim’s father Kim Jong-il has remained the party’s Eternal General Secretary since soon after his 2011 death, while the current leader’s grandfather Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder, is the country’s Eternal President despite dying in 1994.