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North Korea's Attempt To Ease Kim Jong Un's Ascent

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Summary

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has kept an ambitious schedule over his first month in power. His flurry of public appearances — nearly half involving military oversight — aims to cement his position at the center of the country's leadership. But North Korean Premier Choe Yong Rim has maintained a similar public agenda, reflecting previously-crafted plans to ease the burden of leadership on Kim Jong Un during his ongoing training as North Korea's paramount leader.

Analysis

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected a Korean People's Army Air Force unit Jan. 30, his seventh inspection of a military unit this year. Kim has also attended three concerts, paid homage to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and father, Kim Jong Il, at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, visited construction sites, toured a factory, visited Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, and watched a demonstration by a model aircraft club.

Fifteen public appearances in one month is a fairly ambitious schedule for the new North Korean leader and particularly notable so soon after the death of his father. Kim Jong Il, upon the death of Kim Il Sung, observed a three-year mourning period while he consolidated power. By maintaining a rigorous schedule of public appearances, Kim can gain public recognition and convey a sense of continuity and control — especially over the armed forces — necessary to carry on the legacy and influence of his family dynasty. But North Korean Premier Choe Yong Rim has kept a similarly busy schedule, demonstrating an attempt by the country's elite to ease Kim's fragile transition into power.

Unlike his father, Kim Jong Un had little formal preparation for his ascent to paramount rule, and did not have several years of public tours around the country with his father to cultivate an appearance of interest and involvement in the day-to-day affairs of North Korea. Kim has focused a near majority of his recent visits on military oversight, while Choe made 11 public appearances in the same month, seven of an economic nature, including visits to mining machinery and electronic appliance factories, coal mines, chemical plants, construction areas, and irrigation and land reclamation sites. The premier also chaired an enlarged Cabinet plenary meeting to discuss the country's economic goals for the year, focusing attention on light industry and agriculture. Since becoming premier in June 2010, Choe has regularly made economic tours throughout North Korea and even into China — a fairly strong departure from the actions of his predecessor, former Premier Kim Yong Il, and other premiers.

The premiership is one of three ostensibly co-equal positions that balance North Korean leadership power, along with the president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) and the chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC), the latter role formerly held by Kim Jong Il. In reality, power was concentrated under Kim Jong Il through the military via his role as chairman of the NDC, while the SPA and the Cabinet held lesser roles. The premiership maintains responsibility for North Korean economic policy, and failures — perceived or real — lead to dismissal. In practice, the premier has been somewhat disposable and thus not as significant as other positions.

However, Choe's rise to the premiership came amid a major North Korean government reshuffle, partially in anticipation of Kim Jong Il's transition of power to Kim Jong Un. Choe is a former bodyguard and secretary to North Korea's founding leader, Kim Il Sung, and thus a link to past generations of the North Korean elite. He helped orchestrate key purges in the 1960s that strengthened Kim Il Sung and the future role for Kim Jong Il. Despite his age (he was born in either 1929 or 1930), Choe has emerged as more than just a stopgap appointment. He appears to have a stronger hand in shaping economic policy and ensuring continuity and development from Kim Jong Il.

Choe's behavior as premier therefore has been markedly different than his predecessors. His active schedule of on-site observation and "learning" of economic and development projects around the country began long before Kim Jong Il's death. Choe also paid a September 2011 visit to China, where he toured several factories and economic sites in Beijing, Shanghai, Yangzhou and Nanjing. Choe's actions, combined with the additional attention paid to the premier in North Korean media, suggest the premiership is becoming more significant within the country's hierarchy, a restructuring launched even before Kim Jong Un assumed power.

As Kim Jong Un reinforces his role at the center of North Korea's leadership, it appears there is little intent to downplay the role of other key leadership positions, particularly that of the premier. Choe's more active involvement reflects plans to spread the burdens of leadership and provide additional key advisers to support Kim during his on-the-job training. For now, North Korea is highlighting Choe's economic activities as much as Kim's military tours, but whether this carefully balanced cadre can continue to hold is unclear.

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