In the News – Power Struggles and Purges in Pyongyang

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In the News – Power Struggles and Purges in Pyongyang

By BRUCE KLINGNER

Concerns about possible instability in North Korea were raised this week when Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, head of the General Staff, was abruptly dismissed. The move smelled of a power struggle. The subsequent announcement that Kim Jong Eun was elevated to marshal—a military rank second only to the “Grand Marshal” bestowed on Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il—indicated that he retained the upper hand in the battle for control in Pyongyang.

Last week the news out of Pyongyang provided some amusement and hope for positive change, as Kim Jong Eun was serenaded by Disney characters and other Western cultural icons. That sparked serious speculation that the new leader might be more open to economic and political reform than his late father.

Clearly the North Korean leadership transition is more fraught than previously thought. But what is driving events in Pyongyang remains uncertain. Potential explanations revolve around four Ps—power, parity, people and policy:

• A classic struggle for power between the leader and potential contenders is the most likely explanation for recent events. But was Gen. Ri’s sudden removal due to a more secure Kim Jong Eun able to purge from even the innermost circle to further consolidate his power? Or did it indicate that older leadership elites felt emboldened enough to attack a key Kim loyalist? We don’t know.

• Then there’s also the issue of parity between the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) and the military. Under Kim Jong Il, power shifted from the former to the latter, as the National Defense Commission became the preeminent center of government power. But under Kim Jong Eun, the KWP has attained a stronger status, regaining some power from the military. Some experts speculate that the KWP’s Central Military Commission could eventually eclipse the National Defense Commission as arbiter of North Korean military policies.

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Associated Press Vice Marshal Choe with the new boss.

In that light, Gen. Ri’s dismissal could reflect a struggle for parity between the party and the military, the goal of which is to reduce entrenched military power. The problem is that Gen. Ri ouster had a foot in several competing camps. He was rewarded by both Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Eun, he was one of Kim Jong Il’s pallbearers, and he was—until this week—thought to be the younger Kim’s military mentor.

Thus, he was a “made” member of both the old guard and the new regime. He also held positions of authority in both the military and KWP. He was a member of the KWP Central Committee Presidium, the party’s highest-level body, and co-chairman of the Central Military Commission.

• Rather than a struggle to wrest power from Kim Jong-un, the purge may instead result from people fighting for closer access to Kim. There are widespread rumors that Gen. Ri was defeated in a struggle with personal rival Choe Ryong-hae, a senior party official.

Gen. Choe also recently became vice marshal, a member of the decision-making KWP Politburo Presidium and vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission (despite no military experience). He is thought to be close to Jang Song Taek, Kim’s uncle. During the important 100th anniversary celebrations of Kim Il Sung’s birth, Gen. Choe stood at Kim Jong Eun’s side, indicating his status had overtaken that of Gen. Ri.

• The least likely explanation for the purge is a debate over policy. Kim Jong Eun’s Mickey-Mousing resurrects the discredited theory that a despot’s appreciation of Western culture is supposed to presage an embrace of democracy and market principles. Gen. Ri’s removal played into this theory with adherents depicting him as a hardliner striving to obstruct Kim’s desire for bold reforms.

Yet there is no evidence that North Korea has become any less dangerous under its new leader or that Kim will pursue different policies. While the junior Kim has displayed a more dynamic and pragmatic image than his reclusive father, no one should think Pyongyang has embraced reform. Since Kim Jong Eun assumed power, the regime has called for the assassination of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and threatened to reduce South Korean media organizations to “ashes in three or four minutes.”

Most importantly, Kim violated U.N. resolutions by ordering April’s launch of a long-range ballistic missile. Nor should we forget that he oversaw the brutal purges that killed of hundreds during the past two years and has been credited with masterminding Pyongyang’s two acts of war against South Korea in 2010.

There’s one thing we know with relative certainty: That Kim Jong Eun felt it necessary to purge Gen. Ri strongly indicates his transition isn’t proceeding smoothly. Additional purges and organizational shakeups should be expected in coming months. All this is worrisome to the U.S. and its allies, since it increases the potential for provocative acts or, more ominously, the implosion of a regime possessing nuclear weapons.

Original Article

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 – S. Korea says it’s too early to judge N. Korean leader’s intention

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In the News – S. Korea says it’s too early to judge N. Korean leader’s intention

(ATTN: UPDATES with PM’s comments on military pact with Japan at last 5 paras)
SEOUL, July 19 (Yonhap) — South Korea’s prime minister said Thursday it is too early to judge whether North Korea will move toward reform and openness, despite Pyongyang’s recent embrace of American cultural icons.

North Korea’s state media showed Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh taking the stage during a concert for new leader Kim Jong-un earlier this month, a rare move by the isolated nation that has tried to keep a tight lid on American culture.

Performers danced while clips of Disney movies such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Snow White” and “Dumbo” played on a paneled backdrop for the show in Pyongyang.

Kim has also made a spate of inspection tours that are closely related to his people’s livelihoods in recent months, including an amusement park, a zoo and shops.

Yoo Ki-june, a lawmaker of the ruling Saenuri Party, said Kim’s moves could be a message to the United States and China that he is interested in embracing reform and openness.

Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik said the North’s new leader has displayed moves unseen in the North in the past.

“Still, it’s too early to judge whether there will be a substantial change and whether (North Korea) will move toward reform and openness,” Kim said in a parliamentary session.

Kim said South Korea is making efforts to ensure the North abandons its nuclear weapons program and moves toward reform and openness. Kim also said China and the international community could play a role in nudging North Korea toward such openness.

Last year, Kim Jong-il, the late father of the current leader, toured major economic facilities in China, triggering speculation that the senior Kim was interested in following in Chinese footsteps.

China has been trying to coax its impoverished ally to embrace reforms similar to those that lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty and helped Beijing become the world’s second-largest economy.

North Korea ruled out any policy changes following the December death of long-time leader Kim Jong-il.

Separately, Prime Minister Kim also said that a controversial military pact with Japan should not be repealed despite public criticism for cooperating with the former colonial ruler.

The South Korean Cabinet approved the pact behind closed doors, drawing public anger and harsh bipartisan opposition from the National Assembly. The resistance eventually forced the government to delay the signing of the deal with Tokyo at the last minute.

“If we inform people of the precise content of the military pact, they will think it is helpful and necessary for the national interest,” Kim said, while saying “No” to a demand by an opposition lawmaker that the government scrap the accord.

Earlier Kim and Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan offered an apology for not informing the National Assembly of the agreement, but the main opposition Democratic United Party called for the dismissal of the prime minister over the government’s mishandling of the agreement.

“I’m not clinging to my post but I think it’s not appropriate for a prime minister or foreign minister to step down at this moment,” Prime Minister Kim said.

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 

In the News – Chinese paper urges Beijing to oppose N. Korea’s nuclear power claim

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In the News – Chinese paper urges Beijing to oppose N. Korea’s nuclear power claim

SEOUL, June 3 (Yonhap) — A leading Chinese newspaper has urged Beijing to oppose North Korea’s nuclear power status proclaimed in its revised constitution.

The Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper under the People’s Daily, said in its June 2 editorial that any legalization of North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons can stimulate South Korea and Japan, and prod Taiwan to demand its right to nuclear arms, triggering a chain reaction of nuclear armament in Northeast Asia.

In its revised constitution, North Korea proclaims itself as a nuclear armed state, according to its full text seen by Yonhap News Agency last Wednesday on the North’s “Naenara” Web site.

Seoul and Washington have immediately dismissed the claim, saying they would not recognize North Korea as a nuclear power.

The Global Times editorial is the first unofficial response from China, as the Beijing government has kept mum on the issue so far.

“China should not join the two (Seoul and Washington) and help them exert pressure on North Korea. However, it is also necessary for China to criticize North Korea’s latest move and oppose its intention to legalize its nuclear status,” said the editorial posted on the paper’s Web site.

“China needs to make efforts to deter North Korea from possessing nuclear capabilities, or at least openly oppose North Korea’s move to attain them,” said the editorial, noting that the historical friendship between the two should facilitate their frank communication.

The paper went on to clearly say that it is not in China’s interests to be held hostage by North Korea’s radical moves.

“At the moment, the most urgent thing is to prevent North Korea from conducting a third nuclear test, the consequences of which would be unimaginable for Northeast Asia. Besides trying to persuade North Korea, China should publicly voice its opposition at once,” it said.

In a related development, Rep. Chung Mong-joon, a presidential aspirant of South Korea’s ruling Saenuri Party, said Sunday that time has come for South Korea to arm itself with nuclear weapons capabilities in response to the North’s declaration of nuclear state status.

“North Korea’s nuclear armament has become a reality. We should also equip ourselves with our own nuclear weapons capabilities beyond the strategy of depending on the U.S. for nuclear weapons,” Chung, a seven-term lawmaker, said in a news conference.

Chung, a former ruling party chairman now competing in Saenuri’s presidential primary, had previously called for the deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea.

“Paradoxically, peace cannot be guaranteed on the Korean Peninsula, without our possession of at least nuclear capabilities,” he said.

 

Original article can be found here.

In the News – U.S. to ‘never’ accept N. Korea as nuclear state: State Dept.

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In the News – U.S. to ‘never’ accept N. Korea as nuclear state: State Dept.

By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, May 30 (Yonhap) — The United States made clear Wednesday that it will never recognize North Korea as a nuclear state.

“The United States has long maintained that we will never accept North Korea as a nuclear power,” a spokesperson for the State Department told Yonhap News Agency.

The official’s comments came in response to a report that North Korea revised its constitution to describe itself as a nuclear power.

Earlier in the day, a North Korean Web site, monitored in Japan, carried the full text of the reclusive communist nation’s amended constitution.

It shows three new sentences that highlight the works of its late leader Kim Jong-il, including “the transformation into a nuclear power.”

The contents of the website, named “Naenara (my country),” have not been officially confirmed. It is also unclear when North Korea rewrote its constitution.

Pyongyang has carried out two underground nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, and has sought to be acknowledged as a nuclear state by the international community.

The department official said, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, North Korea should comply with its international obligations under a 2005 agreement and U.N. Security Council resolutions that call on it to abandon all nuclear weapons.

“The leadership of the DPRK has a very stark choice,” the official said. “They must take a hard look at their policies, stop provocative actions, put their people first — ahead of their ambitions to be a nuclear power, and rejoin the international community.”

 

Original article can be found here.

In the News – North Korea opens nation’s biggest power station

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In the News – North Korea opens nation’s biggest power station

nkoreapowerstation2

HUICHON CITY, North Korea –  North Korea on Thursday unveiled one of its biggest construction projects in recent years: a massive hydroelectric power station that is expected to provide the nation with much-needed electricity.

The opening of the Huichon Power Station in Jagang Province, north of Pyongyang, was the first big ceremony in a month of celebrations timed for the April centenary of the birth of late President Kim Il Sung.

The power station on the Chongchon River, which had been under construction for more than three years, was a favored project of late leader Kim Jong Il. Kim had visited the project at least five times before his December death. Continue reading

In the News – N. Korea honing capability to attack Seoul: USFK commander

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In the News – N. Korea honing capability to attack Seoul: USFK commander

By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, March 28 (Yonhap) — The commander of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula expressed concern Wednesday that North Korea’s new leadership will trigger a military conflict based on a “miscalculation.”

Before the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. James Thurman said the North continues improving its ability to attack the South Korean capital of Seoul.

“The first thing I worry about every day is a miscalculation on somebody’s part that causes a conflict that he hadn’t planned for,” he said at a hearing on the security condition on the peninsula.

He also said he is worried about the asymmetric capabilities, including special operations forces and cyber-attack units. Continue reading