The appointment of Jo Yong Won to the Presidium of the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea in North Korea has caught the attention of international observers. Although information on senior members of the North Korean administration is scarce, a close relationship between Jo and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is surmised from the comments of those who know the regime.
At the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in January, Jo Yong Won joined the Presidium without actually having served as a member of the party’s Political Bureau. He also took a position as one of seven secretaries of the Secretariat of the Workers’ Party of Korea and became a member of the Central Military Commission, which controls the military under Kim Jong Un. His name is called third from the top at party meetings, indicating that he now ranks third in the party.
On the night of Jan. 14, when a military parade was held in Kim Il Sung Square, Kim Jong Un appeared in front of the military and civilian audience clad in a long black leather coat. Many eyes were drawn to Jo Yong Won who was wearing a similar black leather coat. That coat is presumably “a present from Kim as a token of Kim’s deep trust in him,” says a source from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification.
According to South Korean experts and Unification Ministry officials, Jo has climbed the political ladder through his work at the Organization and Guidance Department of the party, where he was in charge of surveillance and censorship. The department is arguably the most powerful organization in North Korea as it censors and reviews the performance of senior party officials and oversees their appointments.
A former senior North Korean official says that the Organization and Guidance Department oversees all party projects and is responsible for making comprehensive reports to Kim. “Jo probably gained the deep trust of Kim through the process,” the former official speculated.
North Korea is under pressure from economic sanctions, natural disasters, and border closures amid the coronavirus pandemic. It faces a number of serious challenges, including the revival of the battered domestic economy. “About any issue that Kim might ask, Jo can give him a clear explanation, organized like an entry in an encyclopedia, along with names and the network of the people involved,” says a Unification Ministry source in South Korea. “Jo appears to be a highly capable and useful official for Kim.”
A former analyst at South Korea’s intelligence agency, National Intelligence Service, says that “[Jo Yong Won’s promotion] symbolizes the further solidification of Kim’s government, which emphasizes party over the military.” (Slightly abridged)