“North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is rewiring his nation’s government to operate less like a dictator’s playground and more like an organization that can handle multiple crises at once.
According to reports this week from CNN, Reuters, and other media outlets, Kim appointed a de facto second-in-command back in January to help lead the country’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. As “first secretary,” a title Kim himself held from 2012 to 2016 (he assumed the grander role of “general secretary” in January 2021), this as-yet-unknown person will serve as the despot’s “representative” to the WPK.
Experts were quick to say this person won’t actually be North Korea’s second-in-command. It’s at best a kind of executive secretary role, someone who has the authority to handle day-to-day party operations but not the power to make key decisions without the boss’s say-so.
“It means no change to [Kim’s] status as the supreme leader of North Korea, but it will mean a change in his leadership style,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based fellow at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, DC. In fact, “Kim technically always has had a ‘second-in-command’ in every party, state, and military institution,” she added.
The new and unprecedented role, then, isn’t really about some already prominent North Korean official gaining more authority. Rather, it’s Kim’s latest reform to ensure his regime can handle all affairs of state without his consistent, direct input.
“It should suggest to us that Kim is doing things internally,” said Ken Gause, director of the adversary analytics program at the CNA, a Virginia-based think tank. “He’s changing this regime and making it a more normalized organization.””