Changes in Kim Jong Un’s Leadership Style in 2020 and Prospects for 2021
Changes in Kim Jong Un’s Leadership Style in 2020 and Prospects for 2021
Dr. Han Kim Bum (chair research fellow, North Korea Research Institute)
Drop in Kim Jong Un’s Public Activities in 2020
As Kim Jong Un’s rule continues, his power base has become stronger and his leadership style has shown a few changes. Salient changes in Kim’s style in 2020 include a decrease in his public activities, decision making through more frequently held KWP meetings, setting up new divisions in KWP charged with policy supervision and deploying his close confidants to core positions for policy coordination.
Let us first review the frequency of Kim Jong Un’s public appearances. As of December 14, 2020, the number of Kim’s public activities totaled 51 times, including presiding over KWP meetings 19 times, visiting production sites and disaster areas 12 times, KWP 75th anniversary events 12 times and military events 8 times (Table 1). The annual number of his public activities averaged 130-210 times between 2012 and 2016, 85-99 times between 2017 and 2019, and it dropped in half in 2020.
Table 1. Kim Jong Un’s Public Activities in 2020
Event 3, Onsite 1
Meeting 1, Military1, Event 1
Military 5, Onsite 1
Meeting 1, Military 2
Meeting 1, Onsite 1
Meeting 3, Event 4, Onsite 2
Meeting 5, Event 2
Meeting 3, Onsite 2
Meeting 1, Event 4, Onsite 4
Meeting 19, Onsite 12, Event 12, Military 8
Source: Ministry of Unification North Korea Portal. Activities:
presiding meetings, attending political events, and production sites and
disaster area onsite guidance.
In the beginning of the year Kim Jong Un reduced the number of field visits, and more frequently presided over party meetings. The reason for less public appearances by Kim was primarily the concern for COVID-19, but was also lack of successful projects that would look good when Kim visited for onsite guidance. It also meant that Kim Jong Un’s authoritarian grip was strengthened as the Rule of the Single Paramount Leader was consolidated.
Managing Various Policies through Frequent Party Meetings
Contrary to his infrequent public appearances, Kim Jong Un’s presence at party meetings have dramatically increased. As of December 14, 19 KWP meetings were held in total in 2020: Party Plenum once, Plenum of KWP Central Military Commission 4 times and State Council Meeting 3 times. Especially conspicuous was small scale party meetings where only ten or so key party cadres attended. In the past Kim Jong Un usually called party meetings 3 or 4 times a year; this year 19 meetings were held (Table 2). This is to show the outside world that North Korea is trying to become a ‘normal state,’ to display confidence in his grip on power and to blame politburo members for possible policy failures.
Table 2. Frequency of Party Meetings since Kim Jong Un’s
Rise to Power
Compiled by the author.
As for the agendas of the party meetings, KWP Plenum on August 19 decided to hold the 8th Party Convention and criticized poor economic performance. The Central Military Commission deliberated issues such as ‘enhancing war deterrence capability’ against the US, postponing military actions against South Korea, mobilizing the army for disaster recovery and approving the targets for major military production plans.
Party Politburo meetings discussed the following subjects, in the order of frequency: party organization and personnel matters, COVID prevention measures, matters related to the economy and construction projects, ideological discipline of party cadres and anti-socialist issues, recovery of typhoon damages, KWP’s 75th anniversary events, reviewing budget and account, and revising the party constitution (Table 3).
Table 3. Number of Party Meetings Held and Frequency of Agendas
Deliberated in 2020
8th Party Convention 1
economic projects 1
0rganization, personnel 9
COVID-19 countermeasures 8
economic projects 5
typhoon damage 3
ideology, discipline, anti-socialist 3
KWP 75th anniversary and preparation for party convention 3
party constitution 1, budget and accounting 1, foreign affairs 1
Military Commission 4
war preparation 3
military action against South Korea 1, cadre education 1, typhoon
damages recovery 1, organization 1, military production 1
State Council 3
party/government management system reform 1, party convention
preparation 1, Hamgyong Province disaster recovery mobilization 1
A conspicuous change in Kim Jong Un’s ruling style in the past year was a switch from heavily relying on detailed guidance with everything in the field to a more policy-focused style. This change can be confirmed as we observe how Kim delegated more authority to Kim Yo Jong and high-level officials in the Politburo Standing Committee, thereby expanding their responsibilities, set up new departments or restructure functions of the party, and enhance the capacity of the central party organization to guide and control policies.
Kim Yo Jong’s ‘Rule by Delegation’
At the South Korean National Assembly Intelligence Committee on August 20, stories were leaked out that “the First Vice Department Director of KWP Kim Yo Jong is conducting ‘rule by delegation’ concerning overall state affairs.” This is believed to be a way to lessen Kim Jong Un’s stress from heavy workload and to avoid responsibility in case of policy failures (Yonhap News, August 20). This ‘theory of rule by delegation’ was a major issue as it hinted that in case Kim Jong Un’s leadership was incapacitated, power could be transferred to Kim Yo Jong. Speculations about ‘Kim Jong Un’s health problem’ and ‘Kim Yo Jong as the successor’ spread. The Intelligence Committee later rejected the idea that Kim Jong Un’s political power was in jeopardy and stated that Kim Jong Un did not give carte blanche to Kim Yo Jong and it was more like a case-by-case delegation.
Kim Yo Jong is Kim Jong Un’s younger sister by four years. They spent their youth together in Bern, Switzerland. Kim Yo Jong is currently a politburo candidate member and the First Vice Department Director of KWP. Kim Yo Jong had handled ‘Number 1 (Kim Jong Un) events’ at the Department of Propaganda and Agitation. Since 2020 Kim, as the First Vice Director of the Organization & Guidance Department, has been charged with policies concerning South Korea and the US, COVID prevention measures and disaster recovery. However, she does not seem to have her own power base. She is under Kim Jong Un’s protection and aided by experts in the party, and ultimately policies are implemented upon her brother’s approval.
Nevertheless, Kim Yo Jong’s presence at the core of the party organization is an effective tool to keep an eye high-level cadres’ potential disloyalty or treason. On February 29 Rodong Sinmun reported that KWP Politburo Plenary Session criticized party cadres and the cadre training institute for corruption, disbanded a committee within the institute and removed some high-level party officials from their posts. Kim Yo Jong ensures the cadres at the Organization & Guidance Department loyal, and can directly report to Kim Jong Un when necessary, thereby guarding ‘the Highest Dignity.’
Setting up Specialized Departments within the Party
Pyongyang recently restructured KWP’s specialized departments. At the end of 2019 Military Affairs Guidance Department was set up and Kim Jong Un’s close confidant was appointed as the director. This new department and the General Politburo largely overlap in functions. This reflects Kim Jong Un’s distrust with the latter, and his intention to make the two compete with each other for Kim’s favour.
On August 13, 2020 Politburo created a new department, ‘Organization and Administration Department,’ whose function is ‘to defend national interest and maintain security and order.’ This seems to be a resurrection of the former Party Administration Department in the Jang Song Taek era, which controlled law enforcement and security organizations. November 29th Politburo meeting is said to have ‘approved an organizational matter to reform and enhance the party’s ideology project sector’ (details unknown).
In the meantime, Kim Jong Un seemed to be preoccupied with COVID prevention measures in 2020, and there were a number of incidents where he overreacted. Kim practically sealed off the borders: stopped the shipment of 100 thousand tons of rice from China, executed fishermen who violated the import ban order, and even halted fishing and salt production to prevent marine contamination (November 27, 2020, South Korean National Assembly Intelligence Committee).
Kim Jong Un’s Unusual Decision Making Style and Potential Side-effects in 2021
Starting the 10th anniversary year of his rise to power, Kim Jong Un is expected to convene the 8th KWP Convention and Supreme People’s Assembly in January 2021. In these occasions Kim will present ‘the five year economic plan’ and its first-year targets to carry out the commitments he made in his October parade speech last year -- ”I will make my people to be affluent and free of hardships, and to enjoy cultured life.” As for personnel matters, he will continue to appoint his close confidants to important positions. In order to push forward reforms in economic policy organs and stimulate the economy Kim will give Kim Yo Jong a politburo membership or department director position.
Social unrest caused by economic difficulties will increase, however. Kim Jong Un will present his vision for the economy five years into the future and will ask North Korean people to bear with hardships for now, while trying to shift the blame on his economic staff and allay popular discontent. But his policies will be ineffective. The North Korean economy will worsen due to accumulated systemic dilemmas, sanctions, COVID-19 and typhoon damages. People will be disgruntled with shortage of food and daily necessities due to intense labor mobilizations. Instances of open defiance against government authority will increase. To deal with popular discontent, Kim Jong Un will try to step up the rule by public security forces and create external crises.
Kim Jong Un will attempt to break the impasse with US-DPRK relations, while bolstering its nuclear and missile capabilities. Initially North Korea will be cautiously watching the new Biden administration and try not to provoke Washington, which could only bring more pressure against itself. In the second half of the year, Kim Jong Un’s patience could reach the limit. If Biden insists on the position that negotiation is possible only after Pyongyang provides an honest list of nuclear weapons and facilities and strengthens the ROK-US alliance, Kim would not sit by idly. Kim Jong Un could cross the red line and resort to brinkmanship by launching ICBMs, for instance. This will also serve a domestic purpose. After all, negative effects of Kim Jong Un’s obsession with nuclear power status will be felt in North Korea’s internal and external affairs.