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(News Focus) N. Korea's ruling party revived, takes charge of country

2013/10/07 11:00

By Lee Joon-seung

SEOUL, Oct. 7 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's ruling party appears to have been fully revived under Kim Jong-un's rule, taking center stage in the running of the country, observers here said Monday.

The alleged resurrection comes four days before the 68th founding anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) and a little under two years after the incumbent leader succeeded his father Kim Jong-il as head of the communist country.

The WPK had controlled the country for decades under North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung, but during the "songun," or military-first, policy pursued by his son Kim Jong-il, it had basically been relegated as a second-tier organization with little power for over a decade as the armed forces effectively managed the country.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects renovation work at a stadium in Pyongyang flanked by high ranking officials. (Yonhap file photo)

North Korea watchers in Seoul said that reliance on the military under the previous leader reflected how the Pyongyang leadership viewed both internal and external circumstances from the mid-1990s onwards.

Many have pointed out that under the previous leader, the North had remained locked in a constant "emergency" footing that seems to have changed with Kim Jong-un's taking of power.

This shift is readily available in the demise of key career military figures from power and their replacement by WPK members. Among members of the Political Bureau, the top organization that runs the country, the military is only represented by a handful of men, while two-thirds are cadres of the ruling party.

The appointment of Choe Ryong-hae to the director of the military General Political Bureau, the North Korean military's top post, is also seen as a significant move that shows how the new leader wants to run the country.

Choe, who spent most of his life in the party with the exception of a stint as a non-commissioned officer in the army in his early 20s, now ranks above all career military men. His appointment signified the party's new-found status vis-a-vis the military.

More prominently, Kim had recently lauded the role played by the armed forces in the past, yet asserted that the "muzzle barrels of the Korean People's Army must always point in the direction dictated by the party," making its subservient role very clear.

"Under a communist system, the party influences politics, the economy, society and culture," said Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.

"Recent developments showed the WPK exerting its 'rightful place' and getting ready to control change in the country."

   Other signs of the party's rise can be found in its authority to declare a state of war.

In the past, only the country's supreme leader had the right to take such a step, but under the September revisions of rules, this has been changed to a joint declaration involving the WPK's Central Committee and Central Military Committee, the National Defense Commission and the supreme military command.

The announcement, made at the plenary session of the WPK's Central Committee in March, aims for simultaneously pushing forward with economic construction and the building of its nuclear force, a major policy goal for Pyongyang.

Moreover, a revision to the so-called 10 key monolithic ideological system that governs all life in the isolationist country earlier this year is seen as another tell-tale sign of change. The change, which was the first in 39 years, placed the party above all others.

Some watchers speculate that the move shows the relative weakness and inexperience of Kim Jong-un, reported to be in his early 30s, to rule on his own, and that placing the party at the forefront is a way to make up for his lack of experience. Such a step can allow the country to be run by an established system instead of a single person.

"To some extent, revisions seen now and the rise of the ruling party can be viewed as an expedient to prop up Kim's weak power base (for the time being)," said Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun of South Korea's ruling Saenuri Party.

North Korea experts in Seoul, meanwhile, said the WPK's rise seems to be affecting the economy, with corporate entities given more leeway and improvements in the distribution of profits.

While a direct comparison can be misleading, China's reform drive under Deng Xiaoping centered on the Communist Party that coined such phrases as market socialism, permitting the sharp bloom in growth witnessed in the past several decades, they point out.

Despite such predictions, there are some in Seoul who say that there is a need to wait and see what changes are really taking place in the North before making predictions.

"The general perception that change is taking place with more emphasis being placed on the economy may be correct, but to say the military has been sidestepped altogether needs more time to verify," said an official source at South Korea's Ministry of Unification.

"With so little reliable information coming out of North Korea, making clear assessments is hard."

   yonngong@yna.co.kr

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