In the News – North Korea Paints a Picture of Stability
SEOUL—North Korean state media in recent days have showed Kim Jong Eun, the country’s presumed new leader, in the company of generals with long personal ties to his late father Kim Jong Il, in what appears to be an attempt to signal a stable transition in the authoritarian regime.
As North Korea goes through its second father-to-son transfer of power, questions have focused on whether the younger Mr. Kim has the all-important support of the upper ranks of the military, which the country’s opaque political structure makes difficult to gauge. But the state media images, along with announcements in the country’s biggest newspaper from Saturday to Monday bestowing the young leader with several new titles, are seen as further moves in the apparent process to give the family succession an air of legitimacy.
In one often-shown picture over the weekend, Mr. Kim stood between Gen. Ri Yong Ho, who went to military school with his father, and another general who put down the only rebellion Kim Jong Il is known to have faced.
Gen. Ri, who stood on Kim Jong Eun’s right in the weekend photo, went to school with his father Kim Jong Il and was the same age. As well, Gen. Ri’s father fought alongside Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il’s father and Kim Jong Eun’s grandfather, against the Japanese in World War II. Gen. Ri’s father later became the Kim family doctor.
Standing on the left in the weekend photo was Kim Yong Chun, who around 1995 or 1996 warned Kim Jong Il of a rebellion in a military unit in North Korea’s remote northeast, and led a harsh crackdown that is believed to have resulted in the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of soldiers. Kim Jong Il kept the general close to him since that crackdown.
Among the top generals, Gen. Ri is widely considered by outside analysts as the figure whose actions and fate will play a major role in determining Kim Jong Eun’s success with the military, and perhaps his ultimate ability to maintain power
On Sunday, Jang Song Thaek, the brother-in-law of Kim Jong Il who was his chief political lieutenant for the last five years, added to the image of unity by appearing in a military uniform rather than a business suit. He has also held a military title since June 2010.
Separately, the new leader dealt for the first time with a high-profile group of South Koreans, the widows of a former president and business executive who came to pay condolences over the death of Kim Jong Il.
The visit by former first lady Lee Hee-ho and Hyun Jeong-eun, chairwoman of the Hyundai Group, is the only one during the memorial period that has been officially approved by governments in both countries, which technically remain in a state of war. Ms. Lee’s husband, Kim Dae-jung, as South Korea’s president from 1998 to 2003, reached out to Kim Jong Il and, backed by funds and investments from Ms. Hyun’s husband Chung Mong-han, staged the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.
The widows, accompanied by a small group of relatives and associates, arrived Monday afternoon and were scheduled to return to South Korea on Tuesday morning.
Mr. Kim, who is just 27 or 28 years old, is far less experienced in the byzantine organizations of the authoritarian regime than his father was when he took over from Mr. Kim’s grandfather 17 years ago. For that reason, analysts expect North Korean authorities in coming weeks to stage an event to give Mr. Kim more titles.
For now, North Korea’s biggest newspaper, Rodung Shinmun, has started promoting him as “supreme commander” of the military and chief of a major committee in the main political party. TV and photo images on North Korean state media have repeatedly shown Mr. Kim surrounded by loyalists, many with ties to his family stretching back a generation or more.
“Most of the top generals and key party leaders, their family ties with the Kims go back to World War II,” said Bruce Bechtol, a professor at the Center for Security Studies at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.
Also spotted in TV images with the younger Mr. Kim this past week are Gens. O Kuk Ryol and Kim Kyok Sik. Gen. O runs North Korea’s special forces, which account for about 25% of its one million-person military, and was close to Kim Jong Il since childhood, when his mother took care of Mr. Kim and his sister after the death of their mother. Kim Kyok Sik, another family friend and leader of forces on the inter-Korean border, is believed by analysts to have directed the 2010 attacks on the South Korean warship Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island, which is controlled by South Korea.
At the same political conference in September 2010 where Kim Jong Il officially revealed Kim Jong Eun to the North Korean public, he promoted Gen. Ri to vice marshal. Just a few weeks later, Gen. Ri took the No. 2 spot behind Kim Jong Il on the National Defense Commission, North Korea’s most powerful organization, following the death of a general who had also served with Kim Il Sung.
This year, Gen. Ri appeared with the two Kims at approximately 60 public occasions, according to a count by an American graduate student, Luke Herman, published at the web site NK News.
The North Korean regime is structured so that the dictator stands at the intersection of three competing forces: the political party, the military and a state security department that monitors loyalty.
Each of the three has some power over the others. For instance, the party must approve any military appointment above the level of brigadier general. And the system discourages individuals from seeking to replace the man in the middle.
“I don’t think anyone in the elite would try to grab power because there is a well-established check-and-balance system,” said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. “It would be suicidal.”
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