In the News – What’s unknowable about N. Korea
By Tong Kim
As the inner group of the new North Korean leadership is inaccessible, it is impossible to know how and what decisions are made in the North. We only learn about them after they are officially announced. We struggle to understand what led to the decisions and to figure out what the meaning of them is, often without reliable evidence and only through speculative deduction.
Few people outside the leading group knew about the death of Kim Jong-il in December before it was announced. Before Pyongyang’s July 16 announcement, nobody in the South or elsewhere knew there would be a sudden dismissal of Vice Marshal Ri Young-ho as the chief of the KPA General Staff, who was designated by the late leader to solidify military support for Kim Jong un’s succession.
Nobody knew that unknown four-star General Hyon Young-chol would be promoted to vice marshal the day after to replace the powerful Ri, who was stripped of all positions “due to poor health.” We feel the futility of expensive intelligence services. Only in the wake of the announcements have some “experts” eagerly espoused a theory of a “power struggle.”
When Pyongyang announced at 11 a.m. July 18 that there would be “an important announcement” to be made at noon that day, nobody knew what it would be. President Lee Myung-bak called a special national security meeting to watch for any possible emergency development in the North. He may have been given a wrong assessment.
Following the news of a military power shakeup in Pyongyang, Lee was quoted as saying: “From various indications, we know unification is not very far. Unification indeed is nearing.” The insinuation of this statement and its timing turned out to be hollow.
In the meantime, a familiar practice of speculation began. Some believed the North might announce a further change of the power structure. Others thought it might declare a plan for a third nuclear test or other military provocations. There was also concern about the impact of the unknown announcement.
To the disappointment of those who were looking for clues leading to the unraveling of the North Korean regime, the announcement was about adding a new title of “marshal of the DPRK” to Supreme Commander Kim Jong-un, who was a general while some of his subordinates were vice marshals.
Kim holds four other titles: first chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC), first secretary of the Workers’ Party, chairman of the party’s Military Central Commission (MCC), and standing member of the five-member Politburo. Kim’s promotion to marshal was recommended concurrently by all these three commissions and the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly.
We still don’t know the real reason for firing Ri, who was a politburo member and the vice chairman of the MCC. But most believe it was not because of a health problem.
Ri and Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, director of the General Political Bureau, a member of the NDC and also vice chairman of the MCC, were regarded as two pillars of power supporting Kim’s system.
We rely almost exclusively on open sources and their analyses to understand what’s going on inside the North. We determine the power ranking of those closely associated with the leader by spotting where they stand in line for group photos and even from the order of names in the list of a state funeral committee. We observe who accompanies the leader and how often for visits to military units and other places. We follow membership and ranking of civilian and military leaders in key organizations.
Since Kim Jong-un became the leader of the North, there have been some significant changes in the power relationship between the competing agencies, shifting toward a balanced position between the party and the military. Under the military-first policy of Kim Jong-il, KPA generals were given more political and economic benefits than the civilian leaders.
Some observers are looking for positive signs revealing that North Korea is moving to reform its policy and moderate its behavior. They are inclined to believe Kim Jong-un is shifting from a military hardliner policy of confrontation to an economic policy of feeding the people. These observers make a plausible argument that with the latest development, Kim has completed the consolidation of his power base to rule in his own style, without pressure from a particular individual or group.
During the seven months Kim Jong-Un has been in power, many suspect that his leadership has been unstable because of his unproven leadership ability, young age and inexperience, lack of respect from the military establishment and the North’s chronic economic difficulties. Some of them still believe he may not last very long. But we don’t know.
North Korea specialists are like “blind men trying to assess an elephant.” As an observer, I must confess that I am also a blind man, despite having visited the North 19 times and met with North Koreans for more than a decade elsewhere in the world. I still don’t know what the North Koreans have in mind. I read writings by other blind men mostly for amusement and to stir my imagination.
From a historic perspective, North Korea was always part of a dynasty ― except for the 36 years of Japanese rule. The people survived several cycles of “seven years of famine,” fought back massive invasions by the Mongols and the Japanese and overcame a fratricidal war. The North is not likely to collapse soon. What’s your take?
The writer is a research professor of the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.