Editor's Note

Jeong Won Na, a researcher at Seoul Pyongyang News depicts Kim Jong-un as a trend-sensitive and adventurous leader and provides an overview of the recent changes in North Korea. He states that the symbolic importance of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il has been visibly reduced as Kimilsungia and Kimjongillia flowers disappeared after 2019 and the virtues of patriotism and nationalism have been brought forward as their substitutes. In addition, Dr. Na views that supreme leader Kim has been aiming to improve the regime durability by actively restoring a party-centered management structure, given that important policies have actually been decided during Party sessions ever since the 7th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea was reconvened in May 2016.

The year 2022 marks the turn of the decade for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s rule. Known as a “turn year,“ 2022 represents another year in which Pyongyang stages bigger celebrations for every fifth or tenth anniversary of important events. Not only has it been a decade since Kim Jong-Un became the supreme leader of the party and the state, but the year also marks the respective 110th and 80th anniversary of his grandfather and his father’s birth, making it an especially important political moment. It was only natural that the North Korean regime, which derives the legitimacy of its hereditary political system from Kim Il-Sung’s cult of personality, to celebrate various events commemorating Kim Il-sung and Kim-Jong-Il, lasting up to the birthday of the “Suryoung” (supreme leader) Kim Il-sung on April 15th. (Kim Il-sung ruled North Korea under the title of the 1st “Suryoung”, followed by Kim Jong-Il who ruled as the 2nd “Suryoung,” and Kim Jong-Un, who now holds the position of the 3rd “Suryoung”.)


North Korea previously celebrated such occasions by holding numerous propaganda performances eulogizing Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, allotting state commendations and military promotions, and creating commemorative coins and stamps. However, after Kim Jong-Un consolidated his own standing in 2022, there have been noticeable changes, the most prominent of which being the removal of Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia flowers, named after the late dictators. With these flowers disappearing after 2019, the symbolic importance of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il has been visibly reduced in favor of the nation, as virtues of patriotism and nationalism have been brought forward as their substitutes.


A More suitable flower to fill their vacancy and satisfy Kim Jong-un’s millennial taste are roses. Rose breeding and their distribution is also in line with Kim Jong-un’s insistence on “catching up with global trends.” In addition, by announcing ten different national symbols (official national name, national emblem, flag, anthem, language, national flower, national tree, national bird, national dog, national beverage), Pyongyang aims to maintain its rule through promoting patriotism and institutionalized organizations.


Another example of this change is the construction of the Pothong Riverside Terraced Residential District in Kyongru district, which replaced one of Kim Il-Sung’s offices, a registered “historic revolutionary building.” While there have been instances of repurposing idle military sites to create horseback riding clubs or renovating a military airfield to create a large-scale greenhouse farm, demolishing a “historic revolutionary building” associated with Kim Il-Sung to build apartments is symbolically significant. Such a decision by the current supreme leader opens the possibility for redevelopment projects to be built upon other “historic revolutionary sites” scattered across the country, if necessary.


Moreover, numerous “field guidance” visits by North Korea’s supreme leaders have resulted in places and objects being preserved, is now being viewed as an inefficient use of North Korea’s already limited resources. This shifting perception held by the North Korean authorities was also hinted at in past media report trends about the deification of the leader, such as when Kim Jong-Un stated to party workers in the propaganda section in 2019 that “If you mystify the revolutionary activities and appearance of the leader in an effort to emphasize his greatness, you will end up shielding the truth.” An article titled the “Secret of the Teleportation” in the state’s official newspaper, the Rodong Shinmun, on May 20th, 2020, pointed out that “people can’t disappear and reappear by folding space”, debunking the legend that Kim Il-Sung had used “chukjibeop” or “folding space” abilities in his guerilla warfare tactics against Japanese colonization.


While the possibility of developing “revolutionary historical sites” will not lead to a systematic change in a ruling system still deeply rooted in Kim Il-Sung’s cult of personality for the near term, there appears slight changes that seem to be breaking its mold. Ever since the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea was reconvened in May 2016, the North’s major policy directives have been decided by the Party Congress and the Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee. While Kim Jong-Il’s rigid adherence to governing by “field guidance” visits survived the early days of Kim Jong-Un’s reign due to path dependence, governing formats have now shifted toward institutionalized organizations.


From his inauguration up till mid-2017, Kim Jong-Un has not been shown to overly rely on “field guidance” visits for business management, barring construction sites. This phenomenon has much to do with the Enterprise Act (Established in 2010.11.11/ Revised in 2013.11.05, 2015.05.21, 2020.11.04), which stipulates that enterprises should be the main actors in managing their own business and corporate strategies. This is because the supreme leader’s visit and resulting remarks to these companies’ management will inevitably influence their direction or goals at the upper level, and their subsequent implementation and step-by-step tasks at the lower level, thus infringing the company’s management rights.


In a nutshell, governance through institutionalized organizations and a systemic approach is a keyword defining the Kim Jong-Un era. The 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea held in 2021 was a sign of restoration for the party convention, which was to be held every five years following the 7th Party Congress in 2016. In addition, the New Year’s Day address for 2022 was replaced by the Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee, an institutionalized governing body.


During the 8th Party Congress of 2021, North Korea officially set “Building the foundations for revitalizing the people’s economy and improving the people’s lives” as the general direction for the economy. Moreover, during the 3rd Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee held in June 2021, North Korea formalized its plans of “Five years of breakthrough development and five years of revolutionary change,” and disclosed its medium-and long-term plans to build a socialist powerhouse in 15 years, making great strides every five years.


In short, the millennial supreme leader has been aiming to improve the durability of the regime’s system by using institutionalized organizations as a means of governance. As evidence, one can look at the headlines of articles by the North Korean state media. During Kim Jong-Il’s rule and the early stages of Kim Jong-Un’s rule, the main focus of an event was on the supreme leader. However, now that the regime has stabilized, the focus has shifted towards the opening or closing of an event by the hosting institutionalized organization itself rather than the direct participation of Kim Jong-Un.


For example, if Kim Jong-Il had still been in power, the title of the article would focus on the participation of Kim Jong-Il at the Party Congress or the Plenary Meeting rather than the event itself. Now that Kim Jong-Un has established a firm grip over his country, the title of the article would be focused on the opening and closing of the Party Congress or the Plenary Meeting, regardless of whether he participated in the event or not.


In addition, the standardization of governance by institutionalized governing bodies and legislations, as well as developments in recycling, industrial art, and trademarks could be considered a yardstick for change within North Korea. Therefore, as of December 2022, under the millennial leadership of the trend-sensitive and adventurous Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s changes are still very much underway.■



Jeong Won Nah is a researcher and operational staff in Seoul Pyongyang News. He got his Ph.D. dissertation on analyzing the change in North Korea via North Korean literature, videos, and photos. His interest lies in taking a business approach in examining the North Korean regime adopting the perspective of possession. His primary research includes but is not limited to Current Research Trends in Management Studies in North Korea during the Kim Jung Un Era, a study on the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Policy of North Korean Kim Jong-un, and Future Possession Potential According to the Dialectical Discussion of Possession.



Typeset by Junghoo Park, Research Associate
    For inquiries: 02 2277 1683 (ext. 205) | jhpark@eai.or.kr


International Relations