North Korea designated its leader Kim Jong Un “the Supreme Leader representing the country” and “the commander-in-chief of the military” through a new constitution adopted by the Supreme People’s Assembly in April, it has been confirmed. Since Kim now doubles as the head of state, which was previously given to the chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly Standing Committee under the previous constitution, and the chairman of the State Affairs Commission, the North has made official that Kim Jong Un is undisputedly its head of state.
The North has publicized the latest amendment at a time when Washington and Pyongyang are poised to resume denuclearization talks. By publicizing the amended constitution through external media outlets three months after amendment, Pyongyang has apparently revealed its commitment to participate in talks in earnest since the Panmunjom meeting on June 30. Notably, by unifying the legal status of the head of state, which was previously divided into the actual power and a symbolic figure, Pyongyang has demonstrated that Kim Jong Un is representing the North as its responsible leader in external negotiations, and has become the signer of international treaties including a peace treaty going forward.
However, the North has kept the expression “country that possesses nuclear weapons,” a provision that it included in the preface to its previous constitution amended in 2012. The North has thus reaffirmed that since the provision suggests Kim’s father Kim Jong Il completely transformed (the North) into a political ideology power, nuclear power and military power, the wording would not pose a direct stumbling block to denuclearization talks, but Pyongyang nonetheless chose to keep the expression intact because it intends to direct its talks with Washington towards “nuclear reduction” of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula going forward.
Also drawing attention in the new constitution are provisions that underscore the new Kim Jong Un era. The expression “the Sun of the (Korean) people” that glorified the North’s founding father Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il has disappeared, while the legacy of failed policies from the past including “alternative business system” and “Chongsan-ri method” have also been deleted. The constitution changed the term “working intelli (intellectual)” into “jisikin (knowledgeable person)” and added new terms such as informatization. Notably, the constitution contains such expressions as “push for economic construction” and “guarantee practical gains,” and economic reform measures that adopt elements of market economy including the responsible corporate management system.
Unlike South Korea’s Constitution, which is the highest legal framework, the North’s constitution is subordinate to the rules of the ruling Workers’ Party and the supreme leader’s words. As such, we cannot accord a significant meaning to Pyongyang’s revisions to some provisions in its constitution. If is fortunate that Pyongyang has made some efforts by considering the situation outside of the country, although it is merely a symbolic gesture, the North still has a long way to go before it can become a normal state. For the North, which is completely isolated from the international community, the only way is to secure economic development opportunities through nuclear disarmament. After all, Kim Jong Un should make bold decision sooner rather than later to resolve the issue and move forward.