Moon Chung-in, chairman of the Sejong Institute, said Thursday that North Korea has been normalizing its government institutions under leader Kim Jong Un. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
SEOUL, June 3 (UPI) -- Recent changes to official government policy by North Korea, including the creation of a new leadership role, are signs of a "process of normalization" in the secretive state, Moon Chung-in, chairman of South Korean think tank the Sejong Institute, said Thursday.
North Korea created a new "first secretary" position directly underneath leader Kim Jong Un during its Eighth Party Congress in January, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported this week. Kim used to hold the title of first secretary himself, but was elected to general secretary during the congress.
Moon Chung-in, who was previously a special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said the creation of the role shows that Kim is working to reform the government as it deals with issues such as the coronavirus pandemic and severe economic difficulties.
"I don't think it's about power-sharing," Moon Chung-in said at a press briefing with international reporters in downtown Seoul. "It is the delegation of decision-making authority to the first secretary. It is a process of normalization of governance in North Korea."
The first secretary will be able to preside over key party meetings on behalf of Kim, according to reports. It is unclear who has been elected to the position, but the Yonhap report said sources point to Jo Yong Won, a close Kim aide and current member of the politburo.
Speculation has also revolved around the creation of the position as a way of addressing a succession plan for Kim.
Moon Chung-in highlighted the removal of belligerent language from the preamble of the Workers' Party of Korea's revised rules as another step toward normalization.
North Korea eliminated a word that meant "military-first policy," which was the key stance toward South Korea taken by Kim's father, former leader Kim Jong Il.
The preamble also dropped a statement that called for instigating revolution in South Korea as a means of unifying the peninsula, according to a report in South Korea's Hankyoreh newspaper.
Moon Chung-in called the recent changes "very positive developments in North Korea," and said they continued a trend of reforms that Kim Jong Un has undertaken, including attempts to modernize the economy through efforts such as the creation of special economic zones and updating foreign investment laws.
"One of the great misunderstandings of Kim Jong Un's North Korea is that he hasn't been working very hard to normalize things from an institutional point of view," Moon Chung-in said.
He added that it was a blindspot in the United States' understanding of North Korea.
"There are an array of institutional legal changes in North Korea, but Washington is not paying attention to the changes," he said. "They have a fixed view of North Korea."
Washington's nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang have stalled since a summit between then-President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in February 2019 ended without an agreement.
North Korea has also continued to spurn the South's efforts at improved relations, cutting off all direct communications and destroying a shared inter-Korean liaison office in its border city of Kaesong last June.
U.S. President Joe Biden met with Moon Jae-in in Washington last month, and the two leaders issued a statement that reaffirmed a commitment to "diplomacy and dialogue" with North Korea as a means "to achieve the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula."
Moon Chung-in said he was optimistic that the meeting would help draw North Korea back to the negotiating table, with Pyongyang looking to resume talks with Seoul as a way to better gain insight into the Biden administration's intentions.
"It is likely we will have inter-Korean talks before we have another summit or contact between North Korea and the United States," Moon Chung-in said. "They want to better understand what President Biden is thinking about North Korea."
President Joe Biden (L) speaks while South Korea President Moon Jae-in listens during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Friday. Photo by Erin Scott/UPI | License Photo