North Korea’s recent changes to official government policy, including the introduction of a new leadership post, are indicators of a “process of normalisation” in the secretive state, according to Moon Chung-in, chairman of South Korean think tank the Sejong Institute.
During its Eighth Party Congress in January, North Korea established a new “first secretary” post immediately underneath leader Kim Jong Un, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap. Kim was formerly the first secretary, but was elected general secretary during the congress.
Moon Chung-in, who was previously a special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said the creation of the role shows that Kim is working to reform the government as it deals with issues such as the coronavirus pandemic and severe economic difficulties.
“I don’t think it’s about power-sharing,” Moon Chung-in said at a press briefing with international reporters in downtown Seoul. “It is the delegation of decision-making authority to the first secretary. It is a process of normalization of governance in North Korea.”
The first secretary will be able to preside over key party meetings on behalf of Kim, according to reports. It is unclear who has been elected to the position, but the Yonhap report said sources point to Jo Yong Won, a close Kim aide and current member of the politburo.
Speculation has also revolved around the creation of the position as a way of addressing a succession plan for Kim.
Moon Chung-in highlighted the removal of belligerent language from the preamble of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s revised rules as another step toward normalization.
North Korea eliminated a word that meant “military-first policy,” which was the key stance toward South Korea taken by Kim’s father, former leader Kim Jong Il.
The preamble also dropped a statement that called for instigating revolution in South Korea as a means of unifying the peninsula, according to a report in South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper.
Moon Chung-in called the recent changes “very positive developments in North Korea,” and said they continued a trend of reforms that Kim Jong Un has undertaken, including attempts to modernize the economy through efforts such as the creation of special economic zones and updating foreign investment laws.
“One of the great misunderstandings of Kim Jong Un’s North Korea is that he hasn’t been working very hard to normalize things from an institutional point of view,” Moon Chung-in said.
He added that it was a blindspot in the United States’ understanding of North Korea.
“There are an array of institutional legal changes in North Korea, but Washington is not paying attention to the changes,” he said. “They have a fixed view of North Korea.”
Nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stuck since a February 2019 meeting between then-President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un concluded without an accord.
North Korea has also continued to undermine the South’s efforts to restore ties, shutting off all direct connections and demolishing a joint inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong in June.
U.S. President Joe Biden met with Moon Jae-in in Washington last month, and the two leaders issued a statement that reaffirmed a commitment to “diplomacy and dialogue” with North Korea as a means “to achieve the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Moon Chung-in said he was optimistic that the meeting would help draw North Korea back to the negotiating table, with Pyongyang looking to resume talks with Seoul as a way to better gain insight into the Biden administration’s intentions.
“It is likely we will have inter-Korean talks before we have another summit or contact between North Korea and the United States,” Moon Chung-in said. “They want to better understand what President Biden is thinking about North Korea.”