In the News – What’s unknowable about N. Korea

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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 tong.kim8@yahoo.com.

Original Article

In the News – North Korean Shift Is Called Power Play

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In the News – North Korean Shift Is Called Power Play

By EVAN RAMSTAD

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.

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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.

 

 

Original Article