North Korea has created a new de facto number two position within the country in the form of a “first secretary,” according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. The creation of the new post was one of a number of changes made to the rules and organization of North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) during its Eighth Party Congress held this past January. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un previously held the position of first secretary from 2012-2016, though more recently has taken the title of general secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea, a position that had previously been posthumously awarded to Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.
While there has been no official confirmation regarding who has taken up the new position, the most likely candidate appears to be Jo Yong Won, who in the aftermath of the Eighth Party Congress has emerged as one of the DPRK’s top officials. During the congress, Jo was named to the five-man presidium of the Politburo and to the WPK Central Military Committee and was also elected as secretary of the WPK Central Committee. All of this suggests that Jo is now one of the regime’s most critical decisionmakers and that he has taken on significant responsibilities in both party and state affairs.
Former South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jong-Seok, meanwhile, has suggested that the new position likely remains vacant but could be filled on an emergency basis, naming Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, as the most likely person to fill the role in such a scenario. According to Lee, Kim Yo Jong would likely step in as a temporary successor until such a time that power could be transferred to Kim Jong Un’s son, citing the dynastic nature of the North Korean regime.
Still, others see Kim Yo Jung as an unlikely candidate, pointing out that the creation of the new position is likely not akin to naming a successor. Kim Yo Jong was removed from the Politburo during the recent Party Congress, but likely still retains a high amount of influence within the North Korean political system given her access to Kim Jong Un.
Experts have suggested that the decision to create the new position is likely driven by Kim Jong Un’s desire to delegate some of his responsibility. In August 2020, South Korean media, citing sources in South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) reported that Kim Jong Un had delegated some responsibilities regarding economic and military issues to several top officials, and had sent other state affairs issues over to Kim Yo Jong.
According to experts, Kim’s desire to delegate responsibilities is likely reflective at least in part of confidence in his grip on authority.
Kim has also been working to strengthen the role and image of the WPK in North Korea, including through propaganda that references the party as opposed to himself. During the Eighth Party Congress, the role of the party’s Politburo in policy and personnel decisions was also strengthened.
The Yonhap report also notes that references to Songun – the “military first” policy that characterized the rule of Kim Jong Il – had been dropped from the preamble of the new party rules.
Eli Fuhrman is a contributing writer for The National Interest.