SEOUL: North Korea has replaced its long-serving head of state with a close aide to leader Kim Jong-un, promoting a man who was placed on a US sanctions list last year for alleged human rights abuses, state media said Friday.
The move came as part of a top-ranking reshuffle that analysts said further cemented Kim’s already unshakeable grip on power.
Kim also acquired a new title, and now becomes “the supreme representative of all the Korean people” – a newly-created role that observers say makes him more like a modern national leader, on a par with other country’s presidents and prime ministers.
Kim Yong-nam, the now-91-year-old who held the position of the North’s head of state – an almost entirely ceremonial role – for almost 20 years, was replaced by Choe Ryong Hae, the state-run KCNA said.
As the new president of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Choe is technically head of state, although real power in North Korea is wielded by Kim and his immediate family.
The reshuffle comes at a time of heightened diplomatic activity that has seen Kim Jong-un hold landmark summits with the leaders of the US, China and South Korea.
Born in 1950, Choe is considered Kim Jong-un’s right-hand man – frequently referred to as the regime’s “virtual number two official”, having been key to the party’s hierarchy since the 1980s.
Some reports have even suggested that one of Choe’s sons is married to Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister, Kim Yo-jong.
Choe is also one of the three North Korean officials placed under sanctions by the US last year over human rights abuse allegations.
Analysts said, however, the existing strictures on Choe will have little impact on his future diplomatic endeavours, as long as its nuclear dialogue with the US continues.
“Kim Yong-chol, the North’s top nuclear negotiator, also has been sanctioned by Washington since 2010,” Ahn Chan-il, the president of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul, told AFP.
“But he visited Washington without a problem earlier this year. Washington will always make exceptions – as long as Pyongyang has something to offer.”
Kim’s new job adds to a growing list of titles he has accrued since he took power after the 2011 death of his father.
Analysts say it may also indicate a change in the country’s constitution that concentrates more authority in the young leader.
“If Pyongyang indeed revised its constitution, then it just means Kim Jong-un now has more power than ever,”” said analyst Ahn.
“If that’s the case, Kim will be the one who will be officially representing Pyongyang both at home and abroad”.
Unlike his father, Kim Jong-Il, the young Kim has increasingly greeted foreign heads of state and visiting dignitaries, performing the functions of a modern head of state.
Jeong Young-tae, an analyst at the Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul, says the new title is part of Pyongyang’s efforts to “secularise” Kim and his power.
“Kim Jong-un wants to re-brand North Korea as a ‘normal’ socialist country in the world stage,” he told AFP.
“The new title ‘representative’ is a break from some of his previous titles that are redolent of a religious cult.”