Charter change boosts Kim Jong Un's status as global statesman

SEOUL • There is no question that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in full control of his nation.

But a recent change to how he is formally described in the country's Constitution may allow him even more diplomatic leverage as he steps with increasing confidence onto the world stage for negotiations over his nuclear weapons programme.

Last Friday, North Korea said that its Parliament will hold its second meeting of the year on Aug 29.

It follows weeks of intensified weapons tests, belligerent statements over military exercises between the United States and South Korea this month, and the slow pace of nuclear talks with the US.

Analysts say the North's new constitutional changes, which show Mr Kim's consolidation of his already formidable powers, could allow him to act more clearly as a diplomat on the world stage.

This could include technically signing a peace treaty with US President Donald Trump, for instance, or giving speeches at the United Nations General Assembly.

The changes, which were made public recently on the North Korean government's Naenara Web portal, appear linked to an unusual political reality there: While Mr Kim is the undisputed leader, it is his grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung, who is enshrined as North Korea's eternal president.

The younger Mr Kim has governed from his position as chairman of Pyongyang's powerful State Affairs Commission, which was established in 2016 to replace his father's military-based National Defence Commission as the country's top decision-making institution.

North Korea's weapons tests in recent weeks have been accompanied by rising frustration over the pace of nuclear talks and continued military exercises between the US and South Korea, which the North claims are an invasion rehearsal.

The Constitution makes clear that Mr Kim's role as chairman of the new commission makes him the country's supreme leader. But it now adds that he also "represents the country".

This signals potential changes from previous decades, analysts say, when it was the president of the presidium of North Korea's Parliament - the Supreme People's Assembly - who acted as the ceremonial head of state.

"You could argue that the head-of-state business is meant to put Kim on the same plane as Xi, Trump or Putin. It certainly elevates his stature," said Mr Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The North's new Constitution is the "Kim Jong Un Constitution", according to South Korea's Institute for National Security Strategy, a think-tank affiliated with Seoul's main spy agency.

It is clearly designed with Mr Kim's future diplomatic role in mind, including in negotiations with the US and potential activities on the UN stage, the think-tank said.

Mr Kim will be handling the important matters in foreign affairs, while the head of Parliament will be mostly relegated to formalities such as issuing credential letters to diplomats, it noted.

North Korea's government has yet to weigh in on the change.

"The constitutional revisions reinforce the shift Kim Jong Un has been trying to make away from the 'military first' politics of his father's era, towards a new strategy of prioritising economic development," said Professor John Delury, a Korean peninsula expert at Seoul's Yonsei University.

It allows Mr Kim to "represent North Korea in the international community".

The new Constitution maintains a description of North Korea as an "invincible political and ideological power, a nuclear power and an indomitable military power" and emphasises Mr Kim's commitment to economic growth and developing science and technology.

North Korea's weapons tests in recent weeks have been accompanied by rising frustration over the pace of nuclear talks and continued military exercises between the US and South Korea, which the North claims are an invasion rehearsal.

The short-range ballistic launches are seen as measured brinkmanship aimed at pressuring Washington and Seoul, as well as building leverage ahead of negotiations, which could resume some time after the end of the military drills this month.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2019, with the headline 'Charter change boosts Kim's status as global statesman'. Print Edition | Subscribe