The position was created in January as part of a revision to the rules of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), the communist political organ that rules the secretive country.
It is unclear who has filled it.
Experts believe it could be vacant or occupied by Jo Yong Won or Kim Tok Hun, two of the most powerful men in North Korea’s government. Jo, who is in his 60s and believed to be one of Kim Jong Un’s longest-tenured and most-trusted aides, serves as the secretary of the WPK’s central committee. He is often photographed alongside the young North Korean leader. Kim Tok Hun is the premier of North Korea’s government.
Jo and Kim have, according to North Korean state media, chaired meetings or conducted official visits across the country this year that previously would have likely been handled by Kim Jong Un.
Though Kim has influence “comparable to the second-most powerful person in North Korea,” she does not occupy a high rank in the WPK, Lim noted.
There is nothing to indicate the position’s creation has anything to do with Kim’s health, which was the subject of intense speculation last year after he disappeared from state media for several weeks.
It’s also unlikely whoever occupies the new position, officially the first secretary of the WPK, would take power from Kim Jong Un if he were to die or become incapacitated.
Some analysts believe it would be difficult for Kim to install a successor outside his immediate family, who have ruled North Korea since its inception. Others believe that, as a man in his 30s, he is simply too young to be thinking about a succession plan.
Cheong Seong-chang, the director of the center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, said Kim may be comfortable doling out more duties to others because he is confident of his “grip on power.”
“It is clearly distinct from the policy-making style of his father, Kim Jong Il, who failed to communicate well with party members and the public because he reviewed numerous documents one by one,” Cheong said.
Kim Jong Un once held the title of first secretary, but in January named himself general secretary of the party, a title previously held by his father. Kim Jong Il was designated “eternal general secretary” after his death in 2011.
The addition of the new first secretary position was one of several changes the WPK made to its rules, the ninth time it has made such revisions.
The WPK officially changed its policy to “people first,” formally abandoning the policy of prioritizing the military under Kim Jong Il. That strategy, known as Songun in Korean, has not been followed since the early days of Kim Jong Un’s regime.
North Korea and its nuclear weapons program have not been a majority priority for US President Joe Biden’s administration in its early days, though South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently visited Washington to discuss several matters of concern shared by Washington and Seoul.
The White House says it is open to diplomacy with Kim’s regime and plans to pursue a “calibrated, practical approach” that differs from the Trump administration’s strategy of trying to strike a grand bargain using made-for-TV summits.