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Finding Power in the Circus that is North Korea’s Government

In my previous article on North Korea, we looked at the annual dance of peninsular tensions and what has and hasn’t changed about the dance this year. Understanding the regional issues North Korea presents, however, requires a closer look at its secretive government’s structure. In this article we will walk through, to the best of our abilities, the current composition of North Korea’s government, where political power is located, and how you can guess with moderate reliability who is in Kim Jong Un’s inner circle simply by looking at a picture.

At a basic level, North Korea is a totalitarian communist state with a family dynasty leadership. As bizarre and cumbersome as that is, it is quickest way to label North Korea’s government through political science jargon. A totalitarian communist state encompasses two concepts; first, the totalitarian part describes the level of control that the government has over society. In a totalitarian country, the government exercises complete control over all aspects of society and defines approved behavior for individuals. A communist state denotes the overarching style of government. This just means that the government of North Korea is broadly based upon Marxist thought, since Marxism is the theoretical foundation for socialism and communism.

The second half of that jargon, ‘family dynasty leadership,’ refers to the most powerful individual(s) in the North Korea. Since its founding in 1948, as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea’s official name), North Korea has been ruled by the Kim family. There have only been three different leaders of North Korea since its founding: Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un.

The next step to understanding North Korea’s government is understanding Juche (Joo-CHae), the government ideology. Translated, Juche means ‘self-reliance.’ The ideology of self-reliance was first used under Kim Il Sung, in the 1950s, and continues to be North Korea’s guiding ideology. But what does Juche actually do? Its primary purpose is to justify government priorities. These priorities range from intense militarization to tightly controlling the flow of information into, out of, and throughout North Korea. Additionally, North Korea’s relationship with the global community can be traced back to this set of ideas. To a large extent, Juche is the set of ideas responsible for shaping North Korea into what it is today.

Finally, let’s take a look at the actual structure of North Korea’s government. Similar to China, North Korea has one political party. While North Korea technically has three political parties, the Korean Workers’ Party is the only one legally allowed to hold political power. Because of its one-party politics, North Korea has two systems of authority operating in tandem.

The first system is the government. Like most of the world, North Korea has three official branches of government: the Cabinet, Legislature, and Judiciary. However, they do not function independently from one another. Government power is almost entirely concentrated within two bodies contained inside of these branches. The first and most powerful body is the State Affairs Commission, which was known as the National Defense Commission until 2016. On top of the State Affairs Commission is Kim Jong Un, the current leader of North Korea and the official head of state. This commission directly oversees all foreign and domestic ministries, the military and intelligence services, and the state police. Additionally, it indirectly oversees all local, government organizations through various domestic ministries. Because of the number of government functions it oversees, the State Affairs commission is the single most powerful government body in North Korea.

The second major body is the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and is technically a sub-committee of the legislature. The Presidium writes laws and other legislation that the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s legislature, then approves. You may be wondering why a legislative sub-committee performs almost all the legislative functions in North Korea. It is the Presidium’s purpose to legislate when the People’s Assembly isn’t in session. Since the People’s Assembly is only ever in session for a few days each year, that leaves the duties of legislating to the Presidium.

The second system of power is the party. As I mentioned earlier, the only party legally allowed to hold power in North Korea is the Korean Workers’ Party. While other parties do exist and hold seats in the People’s Assembly, they are all members of the ruling party’s political coalition. The vast majority of power actually resides in Korean Workers’ Party and, of course, the leader of this party is also Kim Jong Un. The reason this party is so powerful is its direct influence on the government. While there are ‘elections’ in North Korea, all candidates are selected by the Korean Workers’ Party dominated Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland and always run unopposed. As a result of the ‘electoral system,’ no one in North Korea can hold office without explicit permission from the Workers’ Party of Korea. At this point, you’ve probably realized that I haven’t said anything about the internal structure of the Workers’ Party. That’s because it isn’t all that important; unlike other communist parties, North Korea’s party has a very fluid internal power structure. This means that for all intents and purposes, whoever is close to Kim Jong Un is in charge, regardless of where they fit into the formal party structure.

Now comes the fun part. As dense as North Korea’s government structure is, it isn’t a perfect indicator of who really has power at any moment. Below Kim Jong Un, the holders of power are subject to change, on an almost daily basis. Figuring out who does and does not hold power—and I am completely serious—can be as simple as looking at a picture. On a regular basis, North Korea releases propaganda showing Kim Jong Un in his various leader roles. From his visits of an industrial lubricant factory to watching military exercises, Kim Jong Un is almost always photographed with an entourage.

While the members of his entourage usually change, there is a select group of people who regularly make appearances. Although everyone who is photographed with Kim Jong Un is somewhat important, the regulars who are seen close to/interacting with him are normally within his inner circle. When a regular stops making appearances though, it can mean quite a few things. Sometimes it means, for whatever reason, entourage regular X has been demoted, other times it means that regular Y is being groomed for promotion. In more rare cases, it can even mean that party member Z has been executed. Unpredictable patterns aside, looking at these photos gives us glimpses into a very secretive power hierarchy.

We have covered a lot of ground throughout this article. From its convoluted government structure to the technically-an-election-but-not-really electoral system, North Korea has an interesting array of complicated systems that don’t seem to do all that much. But understanding where power is and isn’t within these systems is important. Additionally, being able to recognize who is currently in the inner circle can help us predict when major political events, such as a party purge, are about to happen. Unfortunately, we’ll have to save our discussion about the happy topic of North Korean political purges until next time.


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