The Worker’s Party in North Korea held the second plenum of its seventh Central Committee on October 7, ahead of the party’s founding anniversary on October 10. The plenum, which came only 17 months after the first plenum of the seventh party convention in May last year, seems to reflect a sense of crisis within the nation amid the unprecedentedly strong international sanctions against the North following its sixth nuclear test. Here’s Cha Du-hyun, visiting scholar at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, to explain the background for the latest conference of North Korea’s ruling party.

The plenum is attended by all members of the party’s Central Committee. The first plenum was convened right after the seventh party convention last year. It is rather unusual that the North Korean media disclosed in detail what was decided at the second plenum. It seems the nation used the conference to strengthen internal unity and tighten discipline among the power elite. With the nuclear issue quickly evolving, North Korea suddenly hosted the meeting in an apparent move to block possibly differing views among the elite on the nation’s foreign policy, including its U.S. policy.

A major personnel reshuffle was conducted during the recent meeting, and this is believed to complete the basic frame of the so-called “Kim Jong-un’s Worker’s Party.” The personnel changes are focused on a shift in generations within the party.

The reshuffle gives the impression that relatively young officials have been elevated to higher posts. Previously, those who belonged to the power elite in North Korea were quite old, compared to those in South Korea or other countries. It’s hard to say that the new officials are young, but their average age is 5 to 6 years younger now. North Korea seems to be demonstrating a generational shift within its power structure both inside and outside the nation.

The most attention-grabbing aspect of the reshuffle is that Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong was elected as an alternate member of the Political Bureau. As the party’s decision-making body, the politburo consists of members, standing committee members and alternate members. Kim Yo-jong joined the politburo, only 17 months after she became a member of the party’s Central Committee in May last year. As an influential figure behind the scenes so far, she is known to have administered state affairs alongside her brother. Now it appears that she has come to the front as a key official who holds the real power.

Kim Yo-jong is the younger sister of Kim Jong-un, whose official title is the chairman of the State Affairs Commission. She is presumed to be 30 years old. Her promotion means that the leader has appointed his own flesh and blood as his close aide at a time when it is necessary to bolster internal solidarity. Yo-jong is also part of the so-called Baekdu Bloodline, which refers to the blood lineage of the nation’s founder Kim Il-sung. Her appointment shows that the Kim family never tumbles but unites. The appointment also dismisses speculation that the children of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il are divided, especially after the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, early this year.

U.S. media outlets have shown special interest in the promotion of Kim Yo-jong. Some suspect leader Kim Jong-un has consolidated his family power and picked a potential successor in case of an emergency. Along with Kim Yo-jong, vice chairman of the party’s Central Committee Choe Ryong-hae also merits attention. Choe is a son of Choe Hyon, a renowned partisan revolutionary who fought against the Japanese during the colonial period alongside North Korea’s founding father Kim Il-sung. Since the purge of Jang Song-thaek, who was Kim Jong-un’s once powerful uncle, Choe has been considered North Korea’s No. 2 man, assuming six different posts. After the latest reshuffle, he holds eight high-profile positions, including a member of the party’s Central Military Commission. Experts are saying that he has solidified his status as a key figure within the leadership’s inner circle.

The group of the second-most powerful figures in North Korea is taking concrete shape. Choe’s position was rather unstable due to Kim Yo-jong’s progress, but now, he has clearly established himself as the nation’s second-in-command. In terms of legitimacy, descendants of an anti-Japanese partisan revolutionary are second to Kim, following the members of the Baekdu Bloodline. With these two forces propping up the current North Korean regime, the second-most powerful group led by Choe has now strengthened its power base. He has taken high posts in the party, military and sports. Now that he has been elected to the party’s powerful Central Military Commission, he will dominate the party, the government and the military. Choe has emerged as a major player in the group of powerful people who are second only to leader Kim Jong-un.

Choe is known as an elite bureaucrat who majored in political economy at the nation’s prestigious Kim Il-sung University. The rise of the economic official, not a figure from the military, indicates North Korea’s intention to manage its difficult economic situation amid tough international sanctions. In fact, the key agenda of the recent party meeting was “how to overcome the international sanctions.” It is the first time ever that the nation has touched upon economic sanctions in its party plenum.

The North Korean leader has mentioned the so-called “parallel development” of nuclear weapons and the economy. To implement the policy properly, the five-year strategy for economic growth that the nation laid out last year must turn out to be a success. Without any visible result that can be measured in numbers, however, the strategy will inevitably end in failure. Worse yet, North Korea is under tough international sanctions. In order to demonstrate the completion of his parallel policy symbolically, Kim Jong-un has no other option but to focus on improving the economy. Economic officials have been promoted to the party’s politburo or higher positions in the Central Committee, and this reflects the leader’s strong desire for economic development.

Experts are saying that North Korea’s personnel changes show Kim Jong-un’s intention to overcome international pressure by using his close aides, and the sense of crisis triggered by super-strong sanctions greatly influenced the reshuffle. Attention swings to whether the latest reorganization may lead to a practical policy change.

The party is likely to tighten its control over the nation’s domestic and foreign policies even further. North Korea will claim that both nuclear capabilities and the economy are progressing, at least in numbers, regardless of sanctions. In other words, it will maintain that the parallel policy will prove successful. As seen in the surprise elevation of Kim Yo-jong, Pyongyang will use various propaganda activities to emphasize that those in the younger generation will enter politics. The five-year strategy for economic growth will enter its third year late this year or early next year. It is hard to predict for now, but we cannot rule out the possibility that North Korea may seek dialogue or negotiations as long as it can find some proper cause, if at least for the sake of stable economic growth.

[Interview] Mapping Project Looks into NK Human Rights Abuses

A conference is being held at an office located in Jongno-gu District, central Seoul. It is the office of a South Korean human rights organization called Transitional Justice Working Group. A transitional period refers to a stage where a society or a nation goes through a major political or social change. The purpose of this organization is to restore justice in a transitional period that North Korea may face in the future. Let’s hear from the group’s executive director Lee Young-hwan.

South Korea has experienced drastic political or social transitions, including liberation from Japanese colonial rule and democratization after military dictatorships. Each time, a fact-finding committee was created to get to the bottom of what had actually happened. In the process of unifying the two Koreas, we may undergo an even more radical transition, in which we’ll have to address a lot more serious and complicated issues than what we’ve ever dealt with before. In particular, it will be extremely complex to look into human rights violations that have been rampant in North Korea for the last 70 years. To prepare for the potential transition on the Korean Peninsula, our group has engaged in relevant research and activities.

The group has recently created a special map designed to improve North Korea’s human rights situation. For this project called “Mapping Crimes against Humanity in North Korea,” the group had in-depth interviews with 375 North Korean defectors for about two years. The group believed that it would be necessary to establish a basis, on which it can find out exactly what happened in North Korea, before demanding an improvement in the situation.

We are not allowed to access North Korea, so we wondered how to identify human rights victims and how to punish perpetrators in the future. We decided to ask for help from 30-thousand North Korean defectors who have resettled in South Korea. We also used satellite images to figure out suspected locations of serious human rights abuses. In the course of unification or after unification, we need to uncover the remains of the victims, identify the dead through DNA tests and find out their family members. In the process, we may collect evidence at the scene of the crime. With this purpose in mind, we began to create this digital map.

Based on the testimonies of North Korean defectors, the group documented the locations of human rights violations in North Korea. It was a challenging job. The group used systematic and scientific methods to amass and analyze the data in pursuit of accountability for human rights infringement. As a North Korean defector, lead researcher Oh Se-hyek says it was very difficult for him to interview his fellow North Korean expats.

A family was divided into two groups when escaping from North Korea. Unfortunately, the children’s group was caught. They were 13 to 14 years old. Their mother managed to reach South Korea. Here, she didn’t have to worry about being monitored by the Security Department and she could do whatever she wanted. But she couldn’t fully enjoy her life because of her lost children. She was almost ruined after all. Another woman lived with her son in North Korea. While talking with his father in South Korea over the phone, the son was caught by the Security Department. The mother sold everything she had to give a bribe to officials, but her son was never set free. She came to South Korea alone to join her husband. While talking with me, she cried and cried, thinking of her son. I also cried. When I was interviewing North Korean newcomers, I became emotional easily. I couldn’t bear to see them cry. It was a difficult experience.

During interviews, North Korean expats pinpointed specific locations of crimes on a mapping system, which was developed based on Internet satellite imagery. As a result, the group was able to find traces of human rights violations in North Korea and complete a report with high reliability. The locations in question include as many as 290 sites where people were shot and killed. In addition, locations of suspected mass burial sites and crematoriums are also marked on the map.

More than half of the countries in the entire world are going through the transitional period of escaping from severe human rights abuses. But most of them have failed to reveal the truth behind the inhumane act, hold perpetrators accountable for it and support the victims. They simply failed to prepare in advance and lost time to implement relevant policies. During their transition, a lot of conflicts arise. But important issues are often left unresolved or covered up in the name of reconciliation. In other words, the truth is often never found out amid a barrage of political messages. Aware of this reality, we decided to make preparations beforehand, if possible. Another problem is that human rights victims in North Korea might be neglected after unification. It is possible that their voices will go unheard, not being reflected in future policies. That happens in other countries. It’s fortunate that North Korean defectors provide important information and actively take part in our research.

The group’s report about the mapping project is evidence that shows the real human rights situation in North Korea. It has been reported in 20 different languages in the world, indicating keen interest in this issue not only here in South Korea but in other parts of the world. Let’s hear from research director Sarah Son.

One of the points we want to get across is that unification isn’t a solution to every problem that has resulted from the inter-Korean conflict and the division of the Peninsula. I think the report also has an important issue, an important role, particularly now in rebalancing the focus on the nuclear problem that North Korea presents to the world. It distracts attention from human rights issues, so we want to make sure that human rights remain in the public attention and isn’t forgotten among all of the talk about nuclear weapons development.

The group’s project has the purpose of punishing those who are responsible for human rights abuses and compensating victims. But the group’s ultimate goal is not to take many perpetrators to court but to prevent any more people from becoming offenders. Mr. Lee shares his opinion.

The power elite in North Korea must know that we are very meticulous in keeping records and that they will have to pay later for what they did. We hope our project will discourage them from committing the same crimes. When North Korea suffers from political or social upheaval in the run-up to unification, some will be blamed for severe human rights abuses. To prevent North Koreans from being branded as human rights offenders in a unified Korean society, we hope to continue with our research and documentation project based on precise and detailed evidence.