Meet the new boss in North Korea

In a complex series of moves, power has shifted from the military, to a civilian elite

Korean Central News Agency photo

There’s been a military takeover in North Korea. Not a takeover BY the military but a takeover OF the Korean People’s Army (KPA) by a civilian elite clustered around precariously perched boy dictator Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-un has been nominal leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) since his father’s death a week before Christmas 2011. Even before Kim Jong-il’s death on Dec. 17, the inner circle at the top of the North Korean pyramid was jockeying for ultimate power.

In the first few months of the new regime, a group of military hardliners led by Vice-Marshal Ri Yong-ho — chief of the KPA general staff and an anointed guardian of the newest dictator Kim — held the upper hand.

The other principal faction — civilian bureaucrats and politicians led by Kim Jong-un’s wily uncle, Jang Song-taek — initially made a public show of deference to the military’s dominance, but worked behind the scenes to break the soldiers’ grip on the levers of power.

The culmination of that struggle came on Sunday, July 15, when Vice-Marshal Ri was stripped of all military and political titles in a public purging at a meeting of the full WPK politburo, followed by the elevation of a little-known general, Hyong Yong-chol, to the rank of vice-marshal the next day.

Two days later — on Wednesday, July 18 — the military takeover was complete with the announcements that boy dictator Kim Jong-un now held the titles Supreme Leader of the DPRK and Marshal of the Korean People’s Army. In the process of public celebrations that followed, newly minted Vice-Marshal Hyong was revealed as the new chief of the KPA general staff.

And two days after that, unconfirmed reports began emerging in South Korea that Ri had been — perhaps — wounded or even killed in a shootout that left dozens dead when a military unit loyal to Jang Song-taek (Kim Jong-un’s wily uncle, remember?) arrived at Ri’s headquarters to arrest him.

Other reports — just as unconfirmed — cast doubt on the shootout scenario.

And still other unconfirmed reports said Ri had—perhaps—initiated the chain of cataclysmic events by trying to orchestrate a pre-emptive strike when he ordered unauthorized large-scale military manoeuvres close to the capital of Pyongyang.

In the end, Ri and his hardline KPA supporters were defanged, a new military leadership loyal to the clique around Kim Jung-un and his wily uncle Jang Song-taek was installed, and control of the levers of powers in North Korea was transferred to civilians and politicians. For the time being.

But the events of July were only the final act of a tense process that actually had its most pivotal points months earlier, in March, April and May.

It’s crucial to know two things:

1. There are no Good Guys and Bad Guys in the North Korean power struggle. They’re all Bad Guys, to one degree or another—second- and third-generation Stalinist thugs, gangsters and killers—who are fighting among themselves for the spoils of power and economic control while millions of their fellow North Koreans teeter on the brink of famine and hundreds of thousands of political prisoners are brutalized and die in concentration camps.

2. For most of the past two decades, North Korea has been run on the principle of Songun, a “military first” policy that has dominated every aspect of North Korean life and thought, ensuring that the KPA’s needs—from food to nuclear weapons to a primary role in society—are supplied in full before anyone else gets anything. Songun was the payoff for the military backing now-deceased “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il (father of the current Kim dictator) in the mid-1990s when his ascension to supreme power (after the death of his father, North Korean founding dictator Jim Il-sung) was being stymied by the political elite in Pyongyang. Now, 17 years later, the politicians are striking back and Songun—while still paid lip service—is in the early stages of being dismantled.

As for the crucial events of spring, the first move came in February when the civilian government agreed to a North Korean moratorium on nuclear and missile testing in exchange for 240,000 tonnes of food and medical aid from the U.S.—aid specifically designated for children and pregnant women.

Military hardliners led by Ri flexed their muscle in March by announcing that, despite the aid deal, plans would go ahead for the launch of a rocket carrying a “communications satellite”—widely seen as a veiled nuclear delivery-system test.

In response, the U.S. froze its planned aid shipment, putting North Korea’s food supply under intense strain. What is less well-known is that China — North Korea’s strongest supporter — also froze its food and fuel shipments at the same time, to show its displeasure over the hardliners’ sabre-rattling.

Move ahead to mid-April as the North Korean regime pulled out all stops to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of founding dictator Kim Il-sung. The military rocket launch was a centrepiece of the propaganda extravaganza, with a raft of KPA and WPK promotions and high-profile meetings packed in around huge parades, armament displays, spectacles and endless professions of undying loyalty to the Kim dynasty and the Korean People’s Army.

The KPA satellite/missile was launched on April 13—and promptly blew up in mid-air (possibly as a result of the same U.S.-generated computer mega-virus that has infected the Iranian nuclear development programme).

When the missile blew up, so too did the dominance of the military hardliners. The civilian politicians—the so-called “economic reformers”—immediately went on the attack.

The humiliation of the missile fiasco left the military hardliners in a position where they could not block a number of promotions engineered by Jang Song-taek (the wily uncle) and his cohorts.

The most important was the appointment of a lifelong politician (and protege of Jang Song-taek) to the rank of vice-marshal and post of director of the political department of the Korean People’s Army — the KPA’s top political commissar, in other words, a power post parallel to and almost equal to that of the chief of general staff, strongman Vice-marshal Ri Yong-ho.

The failure of the missile launch in April opened the door for the civilian government to demand the military tap into its massive underground bunkers of backup food and fuel to replace part of the 240,000 tonnes of food the U.S. would have provided in humanitarian aid if the missile launch had not taken place. The military, off-balance from its rocket failure, blinked, and opened its “war reserves” for the first time since a massive famine in the 1990s.

At the same time, the government began talking about “a new economic management system” now known as 6.28 Policy. Although 6.28 Policy is discussed in terms of economic reform and potential “liberalization” along the lines of China or Vietnam, its central effect is to remove the military’s control over every aspect of the North Korea economy and put that control in the hands of the civilian elite led by Jang Song-taek.

Two other key shuffles had already occurred weeks earlier with relatively little fanfare because they involved apparently reliable military men replacing somewhat suspect military men.

The most important shift was the replacement of old-timer Vice-marshal Kim Yong-chun as Minister of the People’s Armed Forces by Kim Jong-gak, a hardliner and ally of military strongman Ri Yong-ho, in February.

A month later, Gen. U Tong-chuk, the ruthless, hardline head of North Korea’s massive state security apparatus, was purged and replaced by Gen. Kim Won-hong, a less aggressive, more reliable military man. It has been speculated that U’s downfall was tied to enemies he made while participating in purges of the middle ranks of KPA officers during the dynastic transition period in late 2011 and early 2012.

Obviously unknown to Ri (or the rest of us, for that matter), both replacements must have already been in secret discussions with Jang Song-taek and his cohorts in the civilian government because, when the noose tightened around Ri Yong-ho’s neck (figuratively speaking) a few months later, both men stood aside.

The day after Ri’s removal was announced, the appointment of a relatively obscure four-star general to the rarified rank of vice-marshal was announced.

And two days later, on July 18, boy dictator Kim Jong-un was formally declared “Supreme Leader” of the DPRK and elevated to the rank of marshal of the Korean People’s Army. In the same publicity binge, the newly minted vice-marshal, Hyon Yong-chol, was identified as chief of the KPA general staff, officially replacing Ri Yong-ho.

In the weeks since Ri’s removal, the civilian leadership (including those members wearing military uniforms) has consolidated its power base. With almost daily propaganda displays, the key players in this power cadre have been shown clustered around Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and his newly revealed wife at amusement parks, kindergartens, sports facilities and other benign, people-friendly backdrops. One big happy North Korean family is the message.

But hopes that North Korea is in the process of reform and opening itself up to the rest of the world may be overly optimistic.

At the same time that a smiling Kim Jong-un was photographed riding a fun-park thrill ride, hugging children and applauding a stage show featuring Mickey Mouse, the military was tightening the border between North Korea and China (the main escape route of defectors), and a new crackdown was initiated against anyone singing South Korean songs — even if the words were rewritten to reflect a loyalist North Korean perspective.

So power has changed hands, hardliners seem to have been usurped by more flexible pragmatists, rhetoric against the U.S. (but not South Korea) has been notched down, and “economic reform” is in the process of being introduced.

But all that can change in the blink of an eye.

The most important factor is how much food the current rice crop—planted in May in a massive, annual nation-wide effort—produces. A good crop—and renewed American humanitarian aid deliveries—will probably mean the current leadership is able to advance its agenda.

A bad harvest, and resultant widespread (increased) deprivation, will probably mean intensified repression to avert social unrest. And the very real possibility that power will be wrested from the current leadership by another group — probably from the resurgent hardliners in the KPA.

Keep a close eye on Vice-marshal Kim Jong-gak, the armed forces minister and former hardliner who shifted his allegiance to the civilian cadre now in charge.

In a closed world of dangerous, duplicitous men (and a few women), he is among the most dangerous and duplicitous. He could easily change skins again. But, of course, we won’t know that until the palace coup has already taken place.

And by then we could be discussing the relative merits of a new group of North Korean overlords.

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