In the News – North Korean Shift Is Called Power Play
Outside analysts called Monday’s removal of the North Korean general closest to Kim Jong Eun the first major power play of the dictator’s young regime, countering earlier media reports from Pyongyang that the official’s ill health had sparked the move.
Early Tuesday, the official Korean Central News Agency reported that Hyon Yong Chol was named a vice marshal of the Korean People’s Army, one of the posts 69-year-old Ri Yong Ho had held.
The change in military chiefs—from a powerful figure known close to Mr. Kim’s father Kim Jong Il to a little-known, though decorated, officer—appears to be a sign that Mr. Kim is exerting more control of the military via his regime’s political party, said political analysts, professors and other North Korea watchers.
The change is the most significant in the North Korean hierarchy since Mr. Kim took power after his father’s death in December.
In another move that now also looks like an attempt to corral the military, Mr. Kim three months ago gave a senior political figure, Choe Ryong Hae, a position on the National Defense Committee, the most powerful organ in the North’s government, and a vice marshal title.
Associated Press Mr. Kim, right, with Mr. Ri, left, and military official Choe Ryong Hae.
In a country where all economic decisions derive from a policy known as “songun,” which means “military first,” the appearance that the military’s power is being diminished raises the prospect, though seemingly small at the moment, for significant change.
“Up to now, the military has been the major obstacle to any bold moves in North Korea,” said Moon Chung-in, a South Korean political scientist and engagement advocate who attended the South’s two summit meetings with the North in 2000 and 2007.
The State Department on Monday played down the significance of personnel changes in North Korea and aired skepticism that any major policy changes were under way.
“Changes in personnel absent a fundamental change in direction mean little,” said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell.
Still, a number of former U.S. officials who have tracked Kim Jong Eun said they are detecting some potentially profound shifts in North Korea, even if they are skeptical that a cultural revolution is embracing the country.
At the very least, these former officials said, Mr. Kim is further consolidating power and displaying less paranoia than his father did. More optimistic analysts said they believe he could end up surprising the West with his willingness to engage and initiate some overhauls.
China, North Korea’s economic benefactor and closest political ally, has made no comment on the shake-up and its state media have carried bare-bones accounts about it.
The North’s news agency announced Mr. Ri’s fall from power early Monday with only a three-word elaboration—”for his illness.” But analysts pointed to a sizable amount of evidence that Mr. Ri, who was close to the Kim family and perceived to have had a brother-like relationship with the late Kim Jong Il, had been purged from power.
Among that evidence, Mr. Ri has appeared healthy in recent photos and attended an official event with Mr. Kim last week. In addition, North Korea’s elder statesmen and elite tend to hold their titles until death, with aides taking their duties if bad health incapacitates them.
In addition, the North’s Politburo, which approved the removal of titles, met on Sunday, which is rare. And the absence of elaboration or praise of Mr. Ri’s 52-year military career by the North’s media is considered an embarrassment, or loss of face, in Korean tradition.
The new military leader, Mr. Hyon, was appointed a general of the Korean People’s Army in late September 2010 at the same time as Kim Jong Eun and Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyoung Hui, and three others. Of the six who were appointed then, he was one of two with a military background.
Mr. Hyon that day also joined the Workers’ Party central committee, a group of around 100 people, along with Mr. Kim. In North Korea’s system, the appointment of a military person to a high-level political post is typically a sign of bigger things to come.
After the elder Mr. Kim’s death in December, Mr. Hyon was also appointed a member of the roughly 300-person funeral committee. In the list of members, seen by some analysts as an unofficial ranking of power, he was mentioned around 80th. The younger Mr. Kim was mentioned first and Mr. Ri was mentioned fourth.
Mr. Hyon is relatively little known to outsiders and has rarely been mentioned in the North’s official state media. He first appeared in North Korea’s media in February 2007, when a report described how an army unit he led was awarded the “Order of Kim Il Sung,” one of the highest honors in the North’s military in January 2007. The report didn’t say why Mr. Hyon’s unit won the award.
Since Mr. Kim’s death, the transition of power in North Korea has appeared smooth to the outside world, though the new regime has had little interaction with foreigners and limits information.
It angered several nations in April by firing a long-range missile, in what it said was an attempt to launch a satellite into space. The rocket failed shortly after liftoff.
Mr. Kim, since shortly after the mourning period for his father, has worked to create an image that is like that of his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. He has given two long speeches in public, something his father never did as North Korea’s leader, and, like his voluble grandfather, is often photographed shaking hands, clasping arms and even hugging people.
At the same time, Mr. Kim has taken steps to solidify his grip on power and to appear fully in control, compensating in the view of some analysts for his young age, believed to be 28 or 29. Over the past two weeks, Mr. Kim has been photographed at three events in the company of a young woman who hasn’t been identified by the North’s media. That has fueled speculation that Mr. Kim has married or is depicting himself that way to appear older with a stable life.
“This is the process of building Kim Jong Eun’s system,” said Kim Young-hyun, North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. With the departure of Mr. Ri, “They got rid of a person who has a strong image in the military.”
Until Monday’s announcement, Mr. Ri had been considered one of three people—along with the elder Mr. Kim’s sister and her husband—outsiders view as protecting the younger Mr. Kim from potential challengers.
Immediately after the announcement, the North’s news agency released a story describing a letter Mr. Kim wrote to a unit of the military’s internal-security forces expressing thanks for its role in multiple construction projects. The Korean-language version of the report carried the letter itself, ending with Mr. Kim’s name and his title as supreme commander of the North Korean military.
“Mr. Ri’s control over the army has been considered weak,” said Lee Jong-won, professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “His abrupt removal may indicate there was some problem in his handling of the military under the new regime.”
Mr. Ri’s influence became clear to outside analysts in 2003, when he was given several political titles and appointed commanding officer of the Pyongyang Defense Command, which is responsible for the defense of the North Korean capital and, just as importantly from a power standpoint, the Kim family. He picked up several other political titles in 2007 and 2009.
At the end of an October 2010 leadership conference where the younger Mr. Kim was first introduced to the North Korean public and the world, Mr. Ri sat between the two Kims in a photograph of the participants in the event. A few days later, he was the highest-ranking person to speak to a crowd of tens of thousands at a military parade in downtown Pyongyang that the two Kims attended.
Mr. Ri was born in October 1942 and was about 18 months younger than Kim Jong Il. The two were childhood friends, according to some biographical accounts. Mr. Ri’s father was a military colleague of Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung, and the two grew up around each other. Mr. Ri walked alongside Mr. Kim’s funeral hearse.