Browbeatings: A Readout on the Recent Politburo Meeting in Pyongyang

A recent meeting in Pyongyang got a great deal of attention, for mostly the wrong reasons. New media upstart Vox led its North Korea coverage for the week with what could be charitably described as a juvenile taunt. 

 But of course Vox was hardly alone. The Guardian strained Kim Jong-un’s image through a battery of references to Kid ’n Play/Christopher Raeburn/MAN/ Marc Jacobs’s SS15 and ‘the current alt-fashion vogue in womenswear for bleached eyebrows’ (bonus points if you know what any of that means or its value for understanding North Korea), then pulled itself out of the ditch (but only barely) by contacting Hurwundeki, a Korean hair salon/cafe in London, for comment on the degree of difficulty for Kim Jong-un’s stylist.

Andy Sharp, the Japan/Korea politics editor for Bloomberg in Tokyo, had a much more serious and somewhat ominous take on the meeting:

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has signaled he may further purge top cadres, ordering senior Workers’ Party members to carry out a “campaign against abuse of power, bureaucratism, irregularities and corruption.”

And that was just the lede. Clearly there was more to meets the eye at this meeting and a more detailed review was called for. Sharp contacted me for comment (which he wasn’t able to use) on the Politburo statement and meeting, so a modified version of my e-mail to Bloomberg follows. A link to the full North Korean document (in English, Korean, and Chinese) is at the bottom of the post.

The meeting itself — While many events in North Korea can truly be said to serve only the most symbolic of functions, this is a significant gathering from the standpoint of policy review (however stilted and stage-managed the process appears) and implementation.

The venue/attendees and non-attendees — The venue was the same room in which Jang Song-taek was purged, and the configuration on stage is a reasonable indicator of ‘who is who’ in the power structure of the Party (as opposed to the National Defence Commission, several of whose members, like O Kuk Ryol, do not serve on the Politburo).

Kim Jong-un’s sister has yet to ascend to these bureaucratic heights — although she has picked up a formal title of a ministerial Vice-Director and propaganda ostensibly about her grandmother Kim Jong-suk is clearly referring to the need for North Koreans to pay heed to her power, there is still not much evidence that the regime wants to put her front and center yet in such high quarters as the Politburo or National Defence Commission. If Kim Jong-un’s power consolidation can be said to be not fully complete, this would be one piece of evidence — or perhaps that even Kim Jong-un has to hedge his bets and not allow his sister to accrue too much public prestige so as to imply the possibility of a rival.

As far as I can tell, the ostensible number 2, Hwang Pyong-so, did not speak at the meeting, but he was there at Kim’s immediate left hand.  Choe Ryong-hae, who has been rumored to be a purge victim at various times, was very much there, talking up Kim Jong-il’s legacy and the need for fealty to it.  On Kim Jong-il’s birthday, Choe was more or less rewarded for his work by chairing an ice skating competition — since sport is a major emphasis of the regime and most of his peers were in freezing concert halls around the country listening to amateurs sing revolutionary songs, this appearance and his leading speech at the meeting would appear to indicate that  he is still very much in Kim Jong-un’s good graces.

The ‘organizational matter’ — The meeting appeared to have two functions; a review of achievements and shortcomings of the past three years in somewhat unspecified areas, and ‘an organizational matter.’

Since the (very old) Kim Yong-nam was not at the meeting, and hasn’t been seen since January, and has been taking foreign trips as a top representative of the country, should we perhaps be wondering if he’s on the way out? However, the meeting did not mark his formal retirement; he was allegedly writing notes of encouragement to Venezuelan leaders about standing up against American interference. 

This little catch phrase doesn’t mark a purge by any means, but it’s another small sign of Kim Jong-un’s administrative restlessness. Jobs are turning over within the Party at a good clip, and he’s keeping people on their toes.

But Kim Jong-un’s discussion of corruption certainly needs to be made note of. Although I have no direct evidence to support this conclusion, I believe that Kim (or the people who write his speeches) are paying very careful attention to Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Indeed, they would be blind to ignore it; North Korean discussion of corruption is far less prevalent, but very much along the same lines. Although no one has mentioned the parallel, I strongly believe that the Chinese experience — right across the border — has had an impact on Workers’ Party of Korea cadre, who can see first hand when they travel abroad how the proverbial central leash on extravagant consumption by Chinese provincial officials has tightened.

One final note on purges and personnel changes: The Politburo lineup is still very much weighted with old men — Choe Tae-bok, Pak Bong-ju, Yang Hyong-sop (who is almost 90!) and Kim Ki-nam (also in his late 80s) remain active.  So if Kim Yong Nam’s recession from view, or possible retirement/demotion, is to be interpreted as a sign that the Party is going with some kind of a ‘youth movement,’ I would argue that these proverbial graybeards also need to be kept in mind, since they aren’t going away. The younger generation like Jon Yong-nam, the head of the Kim Il-song Socialist Youth League, is coming up, but they might also have been among the main apologists for shortcomings at the meeting; without access to the specific speech texts, it is almost impossible to know.

Frequency of meetings — Michael Madden, his analysis not venturing into speculation about interpersonal relations among the Pyongyang elites, makes the good point in this instance that the Politburo hasn’t met this quickly in a series since 2010, when it was getting its ducks in a row for the Kim Jong-un succession.

Kim Jong-un’s appearance — Yes, he continues to pluck his eyebrows, and his hair is getting bigger. Clearly the fascination with Kim’s strange appearance, rather than the mechanics of the personality cult, fuels part of the interest in him as a global media phenomenon. Consider the fact that The Interview actor Randall Park could do absolutely no justice to Kim’s own larger-than-life acting or his Rabelasian girth. But our interest in his appearance also matters in the sense that he’s quite young, has documented health problems already, and is very obviously gaining a great deal of weight  and smoking heavily. As in, chain smoking. (Unless we can attribute his weight gain to the fact that he is wearing three bulletproof vests under his trench coat when on his on-site military inspections, which is certainly possible.) No one appears to be in control of this particular problem at the moment; Kim Jong-un is large and in charge. And if he goes, we are left with his sister (who has, at best, half a decade of administrative experience) who is surrounded by what amounts to the old guard, current ‘organizational issues’ notwithstanding.

Source: ‘Enlarged Meeting of Political Bureau of C.C., WPK Held under Guidance of Kim Jong Un [조선로동당 제1비서이신 경애하는 김정은동지의 지도밑에; 조선로동당 중앙위원회 정치국 확대회의가 진행되였다/朝鲜劳动党中央政治局举行扩大会议; 金正恩出席指导]’ Rodong Sinmun, 19 February 2015. 

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