September 29, 2009 / 7:47 AM / in 8 years

Q+A-Why did North Korea change its constitution?

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL, Sept 29 (Reuters) - North Korea has adopted a new constitution giving even more power to autocratic leader Kim Jong-il, removing references to communism and elevating his guiding principle of favouring the military. [ID:nSEO253213]

The following are some questions and answers about the new constitution adopted in April when the North’s rubber stamp Supreme People’s Assembly also renewed Kim’s mandate to rule. The new charter was only published this week to the outside world by the South’s Unification Ministry.


The new constitution reflects a maturing of Kim’s 15-year grip over the impoverished state and gives unequivocal pride of place to his "songun" principal, which puts the military first.

Its promulgation came as Kim began to return to the public eye after he was suspected of suffering a stroke in August 2008, which created uncertainties about his leadership.

That in turn was followed by the hermit state’s second nuclear test, mounting threats against a hostile world and the launch of a 5-month campaign to boost its broken economy.

The previous constitution was drafted in 1998, only four years after Kim took over from his dead father, Kim Il-sung, who was named president for eternity. It was a transitional document which said named Kim chairman of the National Defence Commission, which oversees state affairs.

The new version says explicitly the chairman is the "supreme leader of the state" and songun ideals help guide his rule.


Almost none. In North Korea, Kim family rule comes first and documents such as the constitution a distant second. The state bends to Kim and the small circle of powerbrokers around him of senior cadres from the military and ruling Workers’ Party.


North Korea has embraced more of its home-grown ideals and moved away from communism each time it has changed its constitution. The revisions are meant to solidify Kim family rule and rely less on Marxism and Leninism to guide decisions. The original constitution was drafted in 1948 at the start of the Cold War in a manner that resembled founding documents of other new communist states.

The first revision in 1972 played down communism and elevated the home-grown philosophy of leader Kim Il-sung called "juche", or self-reliance. The next revision in 1998 widened the split, which was made final in the April 2009 version.


The document has chapters on politics, economics, culture, rights of citizens, state institutions and national symbols. Many of the rights of North Korean citizens spelled out in the document are not carried out. For example, it guarantees freedom of assembly, but Pyongyang can send to political prison anyone who gathers without permission of authorities. The regime guarantees freedom of religion, but jails those who tries to exercise the right. Privacy is a right, but the government’s large internal spy network keeps tabs on almost all citizens.


North Korea literally translates songun as "priority to the military". Typically referred to as "military first", songun is defined by North Korea as "the military guarding the country as well as building the economy", according to a research paper for the South’s Unification Ministry. The term grew out of so-called field guidance tours to factories and farms Kim made soon after taking power and entered North Korean political jargon by 1999.

Experts on the North Korean propaganda said the ideology has helped Kim dodge responsibility for the country’s sharp economic decline by arguing that heavy defence spending was needed to overcome threats posed by the United States. (Additional reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Bill Tarrant)

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