The following is a guest post by Sayuri Umeda, a foreign law specialist covering several countries in East and Southeast Asia at the Law Library of Congress. Her previous In Custodia Legis posts include New Era, New Law Number; Holy Cow – Making Sense of Japanese Wagyu Cow Export Rules; Japanese Criminal Legal System as Seen Through the Carlos Ghosn Case; Disciplining Judges for “Bad Tweets”; Engagement under Japanese Law and Imperial House Rules; and In Japan: Pardon System Debated.
Recently, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s absence from public view (and subsequent reappearance) led to an increase in general interest in the country and generated questions about the hierarchy of government structures and the succession of power in North Korea. In this post, I seek to explain what the official status of the North Korean leader is under the law and how a change of leaders occurs in North Korea.
1. Is the role or status of Kim Jong Un prescribed by law?
It appears that there is no legal document that prescribes a special place for Kim Jong Un in the government system. There was a similar situation with his father and grandfather, who ruled North Korea consecutively following its founding in 1948 until 2011. The current constitution, which was most recently amended in August 2019, defines the government structure in general, with the Supreme People’s Assembly at the helm of the government. The Assembly, which serves as a formal legislature, has the role of establishing other government institutions and making cabinet-level and other appointments.
While the constitution gives formal powers to different government bodies, it emphasizes the leadership roles of the Workers’ Party, which means that all decisions of the party leadership are mandatory for all institutions and individuals.
2. What are the official positions occupied by Kim Jong Un?
The official website of North Korea states “Kim Jong Un is the Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Supreme Commander of the armed forces of the DPRK.”
Kim Jong Un did not acquire these titles immediately after his father’s death in December 2011. He was appointed Supreme Commander of the armed forces in the same month, but elected chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea at the Seventh Congress of the Party in May 2016, and chairman of the State Affairs Commission in June 2016.
3. Which of these three positions is the most important?
Probably the position of party chairman is the most important. This title is listed first among all three of his titles.
The Constitution states “[t]he Democratic People’s Republic of Korea shall conduct all activities under the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea” (art. 11). The Workers’ Party of Korea is “the highest form of political organization among all political organizations of the working masses and the leading political organization of society.” North Korea has maintained “a party-centered state system, where the party leads the state. The Workers’ Party of Korea or WPK is the sole ruling party in the North.”
The congress is the party’s highest decision-making body and is in charge of revising the party’s charter and setting basic policy direction. It is supposed to convene every five years, though it did not meet between 1980 and 2016.
In between congresses, the party’s Central Committee oversees all party affairs, and the chairman of the party leads the Central Committee. The importance of the Central Committee, and Kim Jong Un personally, is emphasized by article 59 of the constitution, which states that it is the mission of the armed forces of North Korea “to defend unto death the Party Central Committee headed by the great Comrade Kim Jong Un.”
4. What is the role of the State Affairs Commission and its chairman?
According to the constitution, the chairman of the State Affairs Commission is elected by the Supreme People’s Assembly (art. 91, item 5 & art. 101). The constitution has a section (sec. 2) dedicated to this position under chapter VI (State Organs), before a section on the State Affairs Commission (sec. 3). The first article (art. 100) of section 2 states that the chairman is “the supreme leader” of North Korea, “who represents the State.” The chairman is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces (art. 103). The chairman has broad authority under the constitution (art. 104) and can issue orders (art. 105).
The State Affairs Commission is the supreme policy-oriented leadership body of state power. It can issue decrees and directives, abrogate decisions of other government bodies, and make the highest level government appointments (art. 107).
The Commission is officially formed by the Supreme People’s Assembly at its first meeting and serves during the entire term of the Assembly, which is five years (arts. 90 & 109).
An organizational chart of the North Korean government is also provided by the South Korean Ministry of Unification.
5. Are elections conducted in North Korea?
The constitution states that members of the Supreme People’s Assembly are elected “on the principle of universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot” every five years (arts. 89 & 90). Since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father in 2011, two elections have been held, in 2014 and 2019. In the 2014 election, Kim Jong Un stood as a candidate and was elected. North Korean elections are predetermined, with only one approved candidate standing in each of the 687 districts. Kim Jong Un did not run as an Assembly candidate in the March 2019 election. However, he was re-elected as chairman of the State Affairs Commission in April 2019.
6. Where is the text of the Constitution of North Korea available?
An English translation of the Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is available on the English version of Naenara (the official web portal of the North Korean government, which is often not accessible – we’ve therefore created an archived version using perma.cc). This version does not provide information about amendments, but we assume it is up to date.
Different versions of the current constitution, in Korean, are available on the South Korean government’s online Unification Law Database. To reach the relevant page, click the first item in the drop down box of the third tab from left (taking you to a page of North Korean legislation), then click the first bulleted item in the left column. In the center of the page is a hyperlinked Korean text, which takes you to a page that lists amendments to the constitution and links to three versions of it at the bottom of the page. Each has a date in parentheses. The bottom one is the latest version of the constitution, as amended on August 29, 2019. The files are in HWP (Hangul Word Processor) format. In order to open a HWP file without Hangul Word, file conversion software is needed.