“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.””
“Kim Jong Un didn’t give up his nuclear weapons. Negotiations stalled. North Korea resumed testing with 22 missile launches and counting, including a new submarine-launched missile with a range of about 2,500 km. And North Korea, in December, resumed engine testing at a test facility near Tongchang-ri. Kim ended the year with a speech in which he announced that he would no longer abide by the moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, that North Korea would “shift to shocking actual actions to make [the US] fully pay,” and would soon reveal a “new strategic weapon.”
Yet US officials are still arguing that these threats are little more than bluster and that Kim will soon enough yield to pressure. On January 7, a State Department official asserted that there had been a “significant reduction through the year of North Korean activity, missiles, tests, and all the rest of that stuff” and that “will continue … because the US has taken a solid stand and demonstrated strength and insistence that the agreements be adhered to.”
US officials, of course, said the same thing about Iran. When a State Department official was asked if he thought Iran would retaliate after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the official said, “No, I don’t.” When reporters pressed the issue, he said: “I’m just saying that weakness invites more aggression. Timidity will invite more aggression,” and “we’re speaking in a language the regime understands.” That was on January 3. Less than a week later, Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at US targets in Iraq.
US officials were also skeptical that Iran would respond to Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that Tehran would simply agree to a “tougher” deal. Under the agreement reached by President Obama, the world lifted sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to limits on its civilian nuclear energy program that would help reassure the world that Tehran was not building a nuclear weapon.
When Trump reimposed those sanctions, Iran responded by abandoning those limits one by one. Iran has not completely abandoned the agreement: It is still allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor its nuclear programs, remains a non-nuclear member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has offered to return to compliance if the US removes the sanctions again.
But what Iran has not agreed to is the better deal that Trump’s supporters promised was just around the corner.”
“It is remarkable that, across the board, Trump’s strategies of pressure and bullying have resulted in no tangible agreements — no deal with Kim Jong Un, no meeting with Iran’s leaders, and no arms control deals with either the Russians or the Chinese.”