Tag Archive | "Kim Jong-Il"

The Kim Regimes: Two Disappearances and a Funeral

By Mark Tokola

As of April 27, Kim Jung-un has not been seen in public since April 11. His absence has created speculation regarding his whereabouts and the status of his health. CNN has reported that the U.S. government is taking Kim’s absence seriously. It is taken as significant that Kim Jong-un was not present for the April 15 “Day of the Sun” ceremonies making the birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s most important holiday.  He also failed to appear on April 25 at the 88th anniversary commemoration of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.

There have been reports that South Korean authorities have not detected any unusual activity in North Korea, which is an interesting but not definitive data point.  If Kim Jong-un were convalescing but in charge, there would be no particular reason for unusual activity.  Even if he were seriously ill, that might be kept secret within top circles while they were making decisions regarding succession. If troops were being moved, or confined to quarters, that would be notable, but that seems not to be the case.  We are in the dark.

Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un have all had their periods of absence, so it’s possible that we’ve seen this play before. But, would it be a repeat of Kim Jong-il’s 2008 long absence, Kim Jong-un’s 2014 disappearance, or Kim Jong-il’s 2011 death? It is hard to know, and it may take time for the truth to emerge.

In 2008, Kim Jong-il went missing.  He failed to appear for the April Olympic torch ceremony and, like Kim Jong-un, did not attend an important anniversary commemoration, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK.  After months of absence, and speculation about whether he was alive, the North Korean government denied reports of Kim Jong-ils death, saying that he had been ill but his condition was not life-threatening.

In March 2009, North Korean news outlets reported that Kim Jong-il had participated in national elections and had been reelected (unanimously) to the Supreme People’s Assembly.  In April 2009, the North Korean government released a video showing Kim Jong-il visiting factories, apparently from November and December of 2008.  If it seems surprising that Kim Jong-il could have been out of public view for so long, it is partly because we have become accustomed to Kim Jong-un’s much more public persona.  Kim Jong-il was habitually secluded and secretive.  He did not even speak in public.

It seemed apparent from Kim Jong-il’s weakened condition after he reappeared that he had probably suffered a stroke in 2008 and had undergone a long convalescence.  From 2009 on, the state of his health was followed closely by observers.  North Korean state media reported, two days after the fact, that he had died of a heart attack on December 17, 2011.  Even with Kim Jong-un having been prepared to step into the leadership, it took days for the North Korean government to acknowledge that Kim Jong-il had died.  This led some observers to question whether it might have taken that long for Kim Jong-un to take the controls of power.

The North Korean government said that Kim Jong-il had died on his private train, exhausted from having worked himself to death on behalf of the state.  This is a common trope in North Korean propaganda: the Kims sacrifice themselves for the good of the nation.  South Korean analysts have questioned the entire episode, pointing out that the train had been stationary at the reported time of death, and that the weather was too cold for Kim Jong-il in his weakened state to be out travelling.  They consider it likely that he died at home, but the story about the train was concocted to better support the narrative of Kim Jong-il’s having died “on the job.”

Kim Jong-un has had his own periods of absence.  On September 3, 2014, he was seen at a concert in Pyongyang, and then he disappeared, not reappearing until October 14.  His absence from the October 10 anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party led observers to question whether he was gravely ill.  It was recalled that he had walked with a distinct limp during the July 8, 2014 memorial service commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Kim Il-sung.

North Korea does not have a rules-based system for succession.  Having one would be to admit that was an alternative to the supreme ruler.  The system depends upon the appearance of absolute, personal control even though governing functions are necessarily delegated in ways that are not clear to outsiders.

Kim Jong-il’s long illness, starting in 2008, made it necessary to provide for a succession.  Although Kim Jong-un’s emergence seemed surprising at the time, it is clear in retrospect that he was being groomed to rule during years of increasing responsibilities and conferred titles.

Although Kim Jong-un has now ruled for ten years, he is still young (probably 36) and his children are very young.  Far from having planned a succession, he almost certainly has resisted doing so lest he create a situation in which he could be replaced.  Although there is speculation regarding who might succeed Kim Jong-un, those are only educated guesses.

If the rumors prove accurate, and Kim Jon-un is incapacitated or dead, South Korea and the United States may face a difficult decision in how to treat whichever successor emerges.  Someone may claim to be the new ruler, but that person may or may not be firmly in charge.  Would it be prudent to quickly acknowledge that person as the new ruler in order to facilitate a rapid diplomatic outreach, or would it be better to wait and see whether the purported successor is able to consolidate power?

A delay in acknowledging a succession might be taken by the new ruler as a hostile act, making diplomacy more difficult to start.  Too much early support might alienate the successor’s successor, or might even tip the balance against a potentially better outcome such as a rule by committee rather than a single personality. Accurate intelligence about the inner workings of Pyongyang would help the South Korean and American governments make such a decision, but if an uncertain situation emerges in the coming days, weeks or months, it may end up being a gamble.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Mario Micklisch’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation: Another Important Step in Isolating North Korea

By Donald Manzullo

Today U.S. President Donald Trump made an important and necessary step forward in dealing with North Korea by putting the country back on the U.S. State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST). North Korea now sits with Sudan, Syria and Iran as countries that the U.S. considers to have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”

According to the State Department, “North Korea was designated as an SST in 1988 primarily on the basis of North Korea’s involvement in the bombing of a Korean Airlines passenger flight in 1987.”

In 2008, I was a member of the Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee in the House of Representatives. We were briefed by the Bush Administration, which wanted to delist North Korea to show good will on the part of the U.S. in trying to reach a denuclearization agreement. We were also advised that the designation could be reinstated at any time if North Korea resumed its provocative behavior. However, North Korea squandered that good faith almost immediately, reneging on their agreements and continuing to build their nuclear program to the dangerous point it has reached today.

North Korea should have been placed back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism the moment they broke that deal. But while the designation is a long time coming, it is heartening to see the Trump Administration doing everything possible to call out North Korean crimes for what they are, and to cut off every avenue of solace for the Kim regime in the international community.

This move puts the United States on the right side of history when it comes to standing up to the North Korean regime. Kim Jong-un and his father Kim Jong-il before him have committed countless crimes against humanity against their own people both domestically and abroad. They have held Americans on trumped-up charges for political gain, and shelled South Korean territories, killing innocent civilians. This year’s callous murder of Kim Jong-nam in a crowded Malaysian airport using a banned chemical weapon is clearly the last straw when it comes to tolerating North Korea’s criminal behavior.

Along with this announcement earlier today, President Trump also indicated that the Treasury Department would be rolling out additional sanctions on North Korea later this week.

President Trump’s strategy on North Korea includes a deeper appreciation for the deplorable human rights violations that ordinary citizens in the DPRK face on a daily basis. President Trump spent a significant portion of his speech at the South Korean National Assembly earlier this month describing the horrible human rights situation in North Korea and calling on China to do more to stop the regime from abusing its people. In that speech, he even went so far as to call the North “a hell that no person deserves.”

It is time to fully recognize North Korea for what it is – a prison state where each citizen lives in constant fear for their lives and where freedom is an unknown concept. With the re-listing of North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, the United States takes an important step forward by saying that the regime’s crimes will no longer be tolerated.

Donald Manzullo is President and CEO of Korea Economic Institute and former Member of U.S. Congress (1993-2013). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Tom Frohnhofer’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Family Matters: Kim Jong-un’s Siblings

By Juni Kim

Monday’s assassination of Kim Jong-un’s eldest half-brother Kim Jong-nam has been widely thought to have been carried out on the North Korean regime’s order, perhaps even coming from Kim Jong-un himself. If this proves to be true, the murder of Kim Jong-nam marks an infamous dip for the regime into fratricide. Kim Jong-un’s purge of his uncle Jang Song-taek in 2013 has demonstrated his willingness to kill family members, and his older brother’s murder will surely have significant implications in North Korea’s inner circles.

Kim Jong-nam was once seen as the heir apparent to continue the Kim dynasty, but his embarrassing and widely publicized attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland in 2001 led to his eventual passing over for succession. While Kim Jong-nam had largely been living abroad in recent years, Kim Jong-un’s other known siblings have played various roles in Pyongyang politics. Below is a brief overview of the family line.

Kim Family Tree Darker

As a caveat, the number of romantic partners of Kim Jong-il and children he fathered has been subject to rampant speculation, and the true number of how many children the former North Korean leader had may never be known.

Kim Sol-song

Kim Jong-il’s eldest daughter and Kim Jong-un’s older half-sister Kim Sol-song was allegedly favored by her father and held high positions during his regime. Her current standing under her younger brother’s rule is uncertain, but she is likely to still hold influence in the regime’s inner circles. Some experts have speculated that her influence has diminished under Kim Jong-un in deference to the increased power role of her younger sister Kim Yeo-jong.

Kim Chun-song

Kim Jong-il reportedly had a second daughter with his wife Kim Young-sook named Kim Chun-song, though little is known of her and her current activity.

Kim Jong-chol

Kim Jong-chol, Kim Jong Il’s second-oldest son and Kim Jong-un’s full brother, was reportedly under consideration to be Kim Jong Il’s successor, but fell out of favor with the former North Korean leader for being “girlish.” Despite the slight, Kim Jong-chol appears to be in good standing with his younger brother. Lee Yun-keol of the Seoul-based North Korea Strategic Information Service Center stated that Kim Jong-chol had a hand in the purge of Kim Jong-il’s influential brother-in-law Jang Song-taek, which was orchestrated by Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-chol’s general disinterest in his country’s politics has also been widely reported. Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho, who defected late last year from the DPRK’s London Embassy, accompanied Kim Jong-chol on his visit to London to see an Eric Clapton concert in 2015 (video of Kim Jong-chol at the concert can be seen here). In a recent interview, Thae stated that Kim spoke little of Pyongyang politics during the trip and is “only interested in guitars and music.” According to Thae, Kim Jong-chol regularly plays with North Korea’s state-sponsored pop group “Moranbong Band” and is a skilled musician.

Kim Yeo-jong

Kim Jong-un’s younger full sister Kim Yeo-jong has had a prominent role in the Kim Jong-un regime. In November 2014, she became the Vice Director of the Workers Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, which handles state propaganda, and has reportedly purged senior officials. The younger Kim is frequently seen at public events accompanying her elder brother, and some commentators have speculated that she may be North Korea’s most powerful woman. In remarks made last month, Thae indicated that Kim Yeo-jong holds more influence over Kim Jong-un than his wife Ri Sol-ju, and that senior regime officials respect her position.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. Graphic by Juni Kim.


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U.S.-Korea Relations: The Obama Years

By Troy Stangarone

Summing up a presidential legacy is a complex endeavor. There are countless details that are either unknown or just too difficult to fit into the flow of a single piece. There are choice that in the immediate term may seem wise, but in the hindsight of years less so. While mistakes today may come to be viewed as prudent years on. This is even more the case when it deals with only a single aspect of one part of the presidency, the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea. A relationship that while vibrant and strong, is also inevitably tied to both countries’ relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

For the last eight years, we’ve seen a relationship that has grown beyond the Cold War confines of the threat from North Korea and that has begun to evolve into more of a partnership that works together both in the region and on the global stage. This shift was possible in large thanks to the relationship that the Obama administration inherited and the partners they had to work with in South Korea under the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations.

When President George W. Bush handed U.S.-Korea relations over to President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, he handed over an alliance that was in good shape. While the relationship between the United States and South Korea had been rocky at times during the early years of the Bush administration, even during those difficult times progress was made on the alliance. As a result President Obama inherited an alliance that was already growing and changing as Bush administration left a legacy of a completed but unratified free trade agreement with South Korea (KORUS FTA), and agreements to move U.S. Forces Korea from Seoul to Camp Humphreys near Pyongtaek and to transfer wartime control of South Korean forces back to the South Korean government.

Over the last eight years, the Obama administration has built on the foundations of the alliance it inherited. While the alliance remains rooted in the United States’ commitment to defend South Korea against North Korean aggression, the Obama administration has worked with South Korea to move the alliance beyond deterring North Korea. Perhaps most critically in this was the administration’s support for Lee Myung-bak administration’s efforts to see South Korea contribute more to the global community. As part of these efforts, the Obama administration supported Seoul’s efforts to host the G-20 leaders summit in 2010 and asked South Korea to host the second Nuclear Security Summit as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to enhance global nuclear security.

Beyond summits, the Obama administration has sought to increase cooperation with South Korea in a wide range of areas that are now referred to as the New Frontier issues and include areas such as cyber security, climate change and global health. As an example, in the area of global heath South Korea worked with the United States and other nations to deal with the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014.

In the economic relationship, the Obama administration engaged South Korea in additional negotiations to address concerns related to trade in autos with the KORUS FTA. After reaching an agreement, the KORUS FTA went into effect on  March 15, 2012. The administration also negotiated a new 123 agreement to continue civilian nuclear cooperation between the United States and South Korea.

At the core of the alliance, defense cooperation, the administration has proceeded and largely concluded the efforts begun by the Bush administration to move U.S. troops from Seoul to Camp Humphreys. It also updated the decision to transfer wartime operational control to South Korea by moving the agreement from a deadline based transition to a conditions based agreement that would implement the transition only once South Korea has developed the intelligence and command infrastructure necessary to undertake operational control of forces.

If the relationship with South Korea has been a boon for Obama, than it is the relationship with North Korea where the long eye of history may have more to say in the years to come. While he inherited a North Korea that had already tested a nuclear weapon, North Korea has gone on to conduct four additional nuclear tests during his time in office and he will pass along to the Trump administration a much more dangerous North Korea than he inherited.  Many have criticized the Obama Administration’s “strategic patience” approach, but alternatives are limited if the goal is a denuclearized North Korea within a short time span.  There may have been other tools that the Obama Administration used over the past eight years that are not in the public domain to prod change in North Korea that only time and change in North Korea may tell.

Much as in the case of South Korea, leadership has likely played a role in the deteriorating situation with North Korea. If President Obama was fortunate to have willing partners in South Korea, the death of Kim Jong-il left a much more aggressive Kim Jong-un in charge of North Korea. While Kim Jong-il famously slapped away Obama’s inaugural offer of talks, it is unclear if diplomacy could have played much of a role in convincing Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program.

Shortly after Kim Jong-un came to power, the Obama administration negotiated a moratorium on missile launches that North Korea would soon violate and despite efforts by the Park Geun-hye administration in South Korea to build relations with North Korea Kim Jong-un instead chose to greet her administration with confrontation through an ICBM test, a nuclear test, and the withdrawal of North Korean workers from the joint North-South industrial complex in Kaesong. It is perhaps telling that a U.S. administration that, despite domestic opposition, negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran and reopened relations with Myanmar and Cuba found North Korea an unwilling partner for improving relations.

With the path to negotiations closed the administration instead pursued a course of increasing pressure on North Korea. It’s perhaps most significant achievement on this end was the development of increased cooperation with China on sanctions in the United Nations. While the robust sanctions negotiated after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January of 2016 were found to have been flawed, those sanctions were revised after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test to close loopholes and being to bring real pressure on North Korea.

In addition to international sanctions, the administration took advantage of new sanctions authorities granted to it by Congress, though perhaps reluctantly and not to the degree critics of the administration might have hoped. Perhaps most significantly on this front, the administration has sanctioned both Kim Jong-un and his sister personally for their roles in human rights violations in North Korea.

Perhaps the last legacy item for the Obama administration in regards to North Korea has been its efforts to increase the deterrent capabilities of the alliance. It reached an agreement with South Korea to expand the range of South Korean missiles to allow Seoul to be able to target any area of North Korea and to help facilitate its “kill chain” concept of being out to take out North Korean nuclear facilities prior to an imminent attack. On the more controversial side, it also worked with Japan to develop new defense guidelines that would allow Japan to play a more active role if the U.S. were to come under attack and which would also aid in a contingency on the Korean peninsula and for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to protect parts of South Korea against North Korean missile attacks.

For President Obama it will be a strong legacy he leaves with South Korea, a nation that he visited more often than all but France, the UK, Germany, and Mexico and developed close personal relationships. It is North Korea where time may judge him more harshly, or depending on the actions taken by Kim Jong-un and the Trump administration come to view him as prudent. By his own standards, President Obama has done well.  He once described his foreign policy philosophy as looking for singles and doubles, and “don’t do stupid s@#%.” By that standard, President Obama has managed U.S.-Korea relations well. He’s made progress on a range of issues and avoided serious mistakes, and despite challenges presented by North Korea, he stands to hand the alliance over to his successor, Donald Trump, much as President George W. Bush did to him, in good shape.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from The White House’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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How Might North Korea Respond to the New UN Sanctions?

By Troy Stangarone

With the passage of a new round of sanctions against North Korea, there is an expectation that Pyongyang will not go gracefully into negotiations over its weapons programs. While negotiating and passing a new resolution took the Obama Administration more than twice as long as any prior resolution in response to a North Korean nuclear or missile test, the result is far and away the strongest set of sanctions on North Korea to date. The new sanctions would require the inspection of all cargo to and from North Korea, place a full embargo on weapons trade with Pyongyang, limit or prohibit North Korea’s trade in minerals such as coal, and place financial sanctions on North Korean banks and assets. How might Pyongyang respond to the new sanctions?

Security Council Resolutions Updated

How North Korea Has Responded Before

To get a sense of how North Korea might respond we can look to prior behavior. For this it’s useful to separate out nuclear and missile tests conducted under Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. Some elements of the approach to testing under Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un have been similar, but real differences arise in how each have handled the tests more broadly.

NK Provocations KJI v KJU Graphic 2

In both 2006 and 2009, Kim Jong-il began with a long-range missile test, both of which were unsuccessful. After the 2006 ballistic missile test, the United Nations quickly sanctioned North Korea and its first nuclear test followed three months later. While North Korea initially indicated that it would consider any additional sanctions an act of war and might retaliate, Pyongyang relatively quickly pivoted after the United Nations imposed additional sanctions by expressing regret to a Chinese delegation and indicating a willingness to return to the Six Party Talks.

The failed 2009 missile test did not result in additional UN sanctions, but was followed up with North Korea’s second nuclear test in May, which also included four days of short-range missile tests. The inclusion of the missile tests were most likely calibrated to gain international attention. While the United Nations placed additional sanctions on North Korea in response to the test, as the Six Party Talks were dormant at the time, the crisis largely dissipated without a return to talks.

While Kim Jong-un followed the pattern of conducting a long-range missile test prior to a nuclear test in late 2012, he broke the pattern this year by conducting the nuclear test prior to the missile test. In December of 2012 North Korea successfully placed its first satellite in orbit. After being sanctioned for the test by the United Nations in January of 2013 North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February of 2013.

Where the 2013 crisis differs from the prior two under Kim Jong-il is the extent to which Kim Jong-un increased the level of tensions on the Korean peninsula. In addition to conducting the nuclear and missile tests, North Korea announced that it would restart the reactor at Yongbyun, conducted cyberattacks on South Korea, and withdrew its workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex for nearly half the year.

The Role of Rhetoric in Responding to UN Sanctions

Beyond the actions taken, each crisis has a rhetorical dimension. In 2006, North Korea threatened to launch a nuclear missile if the U.S. did not engage in talks and war if additional sanctions were put in place after its nuclear test. South Korea’s decision to join the Proliferation Security Initiative after North Korea’s second nuclear test lead Pyongyang to declare that South Korea had sent the Korean peninsula to a “state of war” and threatened that it was no longer bound by the Korean War armistice.

While the events of 2013 contained elements of North Korea’s prior provocations, there was a higher degree of specificity in the threats, an increase in the rhetorical intensity, and a longer duration than during previous crises. As in prior crises North Korea threatened South Korea, this time for South Korean cooperation with UN sanctions. It also went a step further by threatening South Korea’s final destruction during a UN disarmament conference, no less. The threat to withdrawal from the armistice was again issued. While North Korea had threatened nuclear strikes previously on the United States, this time it added Japan to its list. It also became more specific in its threats claiming to have targeted Guam, Hawaii, and the U.S. mainland, while also releasing a photo showing Washington, DC, San Diego, and Austin, TX as potential targets.

Under Kim Jong-un the rhetorical bar has been raised. This can be seen further in a 2013 study by KEI on North Korean rhetoric. In examining North Korean rhetoric on KCNA in 2012 prior to the crisis of 2013 in relation to prior crises, we found that:

references to “war” in KCNA were up 190 percent from 1998, when North Korea was sanctioned for a missile test, and 107 percent from North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009. In 2012, references to war never fell below 217 in a month and were over 300 in all months but January and November. In 1998, they never exceeded 166 mentions in a single month, while in 2009 they only exceeded 200 when North Korea evicted IAEA inspectors in March and when it was sanctioned by the UN in June. In the case of 2009, mentions of war decreased by 50 percent in April and 28 percent in July after spikes in the prior months.

Use of terms “War” and “Peace” in 1998, 2009 and 2012

Rhetoric Chart 1

In the case of the usage of “nuclear” we found that:

nuclear in KCNA grew 164 percent from 1998 to 2009, and another 70 percent from 2009 to 2012. Overall, references to nuclear have grown 350 percent from 1998 to 2012 and were up another 139 percent over the first three months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012.

What to Expect Going Forward

A few things stand out from the 2013 crisis compared to the two prior crises under Kim Jong-il. First, the 2013 crisis was longer in duration than the prior two. Second, Kim Jong-un was willing to expand beyond the use of rhetoric, missile, and nuclear tests to gain the attention of the international community. Lastly, both the usage and the specificity of North Korea’s rhetoric has grown.

While the limited number of prior crises make it difficult to predict how North Korea will react to the new round of sanctions, given the significant strengthening of sanctions on North Korea we should expect the current crisis to be longer in duration and there to be a significant increase in the usage of rhetoric by North Korea. Another factor here will be the clear shift by the international community from a mixed policy of engagement and sanctions to one more solidly focused on sanctions.

At the same time, Kim Jong-un has shown a willingness to think outside of the box when being provocative. With the Kaesong Industrial Complex now suspended that avenue has been closed to further provocations. However, South Korea’s intelligence agency has warned that North Korea could engage in cyberattacks, kidnappings, and the use of poison gas. While North Korea could choose to respond in a more traditional manner with additional nuclear or missile tests, in light of Kim Jong-un’s willingness to take new approaches there is a good probability that North Korea will look to unconventional means such as cyberattacks as part of their response to the new UN sanctions.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Rolf Venema’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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North Korea’s Top Five Outrageous Claims

By Jenna Gibson

Big news out of Pyongyang – a North Korean factory has made the world’s first hangover-free alcohol.

Or so they say.

North Korea has long been the butt of jokes, many of them centered on country’s eccentric leaders. This stems in part from curiosity – because news from North Korea is so rare, every crazy rumor is devoured with glee. And with over-the-top claims like this one, the entertainment factor is even greater.

From the superhero-esque origin stories of the Kim family to the fantastical inventions they have gifted to the world, here are five of the most outrageous claims from North Korea.

1.       North Korean scientists have cured cancer, Ebola, MERS, and AIDS

Originally produced in the 90s, the miraculous Kumdang-2 has been a point of pride for North Korea for years. When Ebola fears wracked the world in 2014, North Korea touted the power of this injection to both prevent and treat the deadly disease (meanwhile, they shut out foreign tourists for six months, just to be safe). And again in 2015, while its neighbor to the South was battling an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Pyongyang boasted that Kumdang-2 would take care of that too.

According to the Korean Central News Agency, the drug is produced from a local variety of ginseng mixed with rare-earth elements and small amounts of gold and platinum. According to The Guardian, a Moscow-based distributor lists a basic course of injections at 1,500 rubles ($18.35).

2.       Kim Jong-il is a golf genius

In 1994, Kim Jong-il made golf history when he shot a round of golf at 38-under par. It was, of course, the first time he had ever played. This amazing round, which was played on North Korea’s only golf course, included 11 holes-in-one. For reference, the lowest score in a PGA Tour tournament was 33-under, set by Steve Stricker in 2009.

Naturally, after his successful record-smashing round Kim Jong-il announced his immediate retirement from golf.

3.       Kim Jong-il found a cure for shortness

Along with the many communicable diseases North Korea has cured, they have also claimed mastery over genetics. In 1989, the government announced the discovery of a drug that would cure shortness, and distributed pamphlets encouraging citizens to try it out.

In actuality, the dictator (who was only 5’3” himself), rounded up those who came to claim their dose of the treatment and exiled them to uninhabited islands.

4.       Kim Jong-un was a child prodigy in various fields

Following in the footsteps of his father, North Korea’s current leader was a miracle worker from a very young age. By his 3rd birthday, he was learning to drive. And when a foreign yacht company executive visited North Korea, a 9-year-old Kim Jong-un trounced him in a sailing race.

These claims have all been included in middle and high school textbooks as part of a new required subject called “Kim Jong-un’s Revolutionary Activities,” which was introduced in 2015.

5.       North Korea just successfully tested a hydrogen bomb

Starting off 2016 with a bang, on January 6 North Korea announced that it had conducted a successful test of a hydrogen bomb. Seismic data confirmed that a test had indeed been carried out…but it was almost certainly not an H-bomb. In an interview with CCTV America, KEI Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade Troy Stangarone noted that the yield of a true H-bomb would be significantly greater than what was in fact detected from this test.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Stephan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Has North Korean Rhetoric Changed Under Kim Jong-un?

By Troy Stangarone, Andrew Kwon, and Peter Taves

With the passing of Kim Jong-il in December of 2011, the United States and South Korea entered into a new period of uncertainty with North Korea. Shortly after Kim Jong-un assumed power, questions were raised regarding the extent of his hold on the regime in Pyongyang and what his rise to power would mean for the future of North Korea. The events of recent months have only added to the level of uncertainty surrounding the regime in Pyongyang. While the rhetoric and provocations have begun to subside, the most recent crisis has seen a shift in the use and intensity of bellicose rhetoric by the regime in Pyongyang.

North Korea has a history of engaging in threats to extract concessions from the United States and South Korea. During his time in power, Kim Jong-il mastered the art of escalating a crisis for effect, only to dial the tensions back down when the time was right to achieve his ends. Over the years, the United States and South Korea grew familiar with his patterns of behavior, much as with Kim Il-sung before him. With Kim Jong-un that same level of familiarity has yet to develop.

While the events of recent months contain elements of North Korea’s prior provocations, there has been a higher degree of specificity in the threats, an increase in the rhetorical intensity, and a longer duration than during previous crises. North Korea has also shown an increasing ability to follow through on its threats. Though North Korea does not yet possess the technical capability to hit targets in the mainland of the United States, it has demonstrated a growing sophistication in its nuclear and missile programs. The wreckage from the December satellite launch has lead some in the intelligence community to believe that North Korea is closer to miniaturizing a nuclear warhead than was previously believed.

If North Korea’s weapons programs are growing more sophisticated, the recent crisis has also seen a shift in Pyongyang’s rhetoric. Since Kim Jong-un took power the hostility of North Korean rhetoric has increased markedly, even during times of perceived calm. An analysis of the current and previous crises with North Korea shows the use of terms such as “war,” “satellite,” and “nuclear” growing markedly more prevalent in North Korean rhetoric in KCNA than terms such as “peace,” “reconciliation,” and “dialogue” (see foot note for details)[1].

During the recent crisis that began in December, many analysts have noted the increasing volume of provocative rhetoric coming out of North Korea. However, analysis shows that the increase in rhetoric under Kim Jong-un predates the current crisis. In 2012, references to “war” in KCNA were up 190 percent from 1998, when North Korea was sanctioned for a missile test, and 107 percent from North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009. In 2012, references to war never fell below 217 in a month and were over 300 in all months but January and November. In 1998, they never exceeded 166 mentions in a single month, while in 2009 they only exceeded 200 when North Korea evicted IAEA inspectors in March and when it was sanctioned by the UN in June. In the case of 2009, mentions of war decreased by 50 percent in April and 28 percent in July after spikes in the prior months (Chart 1).

Chart 1: Use of terms “War” and “Peace” in 1998, 2009 and 2012

Rhetoric Chart 1

While North Korea’s use of “peace” in its rhetoric is also increasing, it is growing at a slower rate than “war.” The use of peace in KCNA rose by 129 percent from 1998 to 2012 and 77 percent from 2009 to 2012 (Graph 1).

Graph 1: Ratio change and usage change of terms of “War” and “Peace” between 1998 and 2012

Rhetoric Graph 1

Interestingly, there seems to be a pattern in North Korea’s usage of the terms “war” and “peace,” which are used in tandem at a roughly 2-to-1 ratio. In 1998, war was used on average 1.98 times for every usage of peace. In 2009, the year of North Korea’s second nuclear test, the ratio rose slightly to 2.11. However, in 2012 the ratio rose to 2.38 percent, a 20 percent increase from 1998, despite relative calm for most of the year.

At the peak of the crisis over the December 2012 satellite launch, references to “satellite” grew nearly 170 percent compared to a similar period after the August 1998 launch (Chart 2).  References to “nuclear,” however, during the peak points of the 2009 UN sanctions and the most recent UN sanctions in response to North Korea’s third nuclear test are virtually identical (Chart 2). This difference most likely stems from the dispute between North Korea and the United States over the nature of its satellite program.

Chart 2: Use of terms “Satellite” and “Nuclear” in 1998, 2009 and 2012

Rhetoric Chart 2

However, looking beyond the peaks there is a notable increase in North Korea’s use of “nuclear” in its rhetoric under Kim Jong-un. References to nuclear in KCNA grew 164 percent from 1998 to 2009, and another 70 percent from 2009 to 2012. Overall, references to nuclear have grown 350 percent from 1998 to 2012 and were up another 139 percent over the first three months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012 (Graph 2).

Graph 2: Usage change of terms “Satellite” and “Nuclear” between 1998 and 2012

Rhetoric Graph 2

North Korea’s use of more positive terms such as “reconciliation” and “dialogue” has been inconsistent (Chart 3). Mentions of reconciliation have actually fallen since 1998 by 32 percent between 1998 and 2009, though they rose by 27 percent between 2009 and 2012. This is somewhat interesting given the harsh rhetoric Pyongyang directed towards Lee Myung-bak during the period. However, overall mentions of reconciliation are down 14 percent from 1998 to 2012 and are down another 17 percent over the first three months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012.

The use of “dialogue” has risen 56 percent between 2009 and 2012 and 41 percent overall between 1998 and 2012. However, over the first three months of 2013, much like North Korea’s use of reconciliation, usage of dialogue is down 41 percent over same period in 2012.

Chart 3: Use of terms “Reconciliation” and “Dialogue” in 1998, 2009 and 2012

Rhetoric Chart 3

Despite the use of “dialogue” being down over the first three months in 2013, there may be indications in the shift of the crisis in April. Data for this study was only available through the first half of April, but in that time use of dialogue in KCNA was up 29 percent from March and at a higher level than at any point during 2012.

Despite the potential positive sign in North Korea’s usage of “dialogue” over the first half of April the overall rate of usage of terms such as “war” and “nuclear” are growing at a faster rate than “reconciliation” and “dialogue.”

Beyond the increasing usage of rhetoric by the regime in North Korea, there have also been changes in the tone of the rhetoric. Under Kim Jong-il, North Korean rhetoric while certainly bellicose was calculated, predictable, measured, and occasionally even conciliatory. In earlier periods of the North Korean nuclear crisis, efforts to allow inspectors from the IAEA were rhetorically deemed almost diplomatically as “unreasonable” and Kim Kye Gwan argued that dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons without a peace treaty would be “unreasonable” as well. As recently as 2005, Kim Jong-il’s government stated a potential for “friendship” between the United States and North Korea, and Kim Jong-il admitted that he thought “favorably” of the United States.

The rhetoric under Kim Jong-un has not been so friendly.

In place of intermittent conciliatory language, the regime under Kim Jong-Un has opted for escalation. Kim Jong-il’s threats were largely innocuous, typically referring to “effective countermeasures” in a defensive response to an American attack. Media threats under Kim Jong-un, however, designate specific targets and even threaten pre-emptive war. Whether these too are innocuous remains to be seen.

Less clear is the intent of the rhetoric. Under Kim Jong-il, North Korea used provocations and hostile rhetoric to extract political and material concessions from the West, such as light water reactors and bilateral talks with the United States. With Kim Jong-un the motives are more opaque.

Many analysts have suggested that, along with the need to consolidate power domestically, the regime is setting the stage for future negotiations. However, Pyongyang has made clear that its nuclear weapons are not up for negotiation, calling them “the nation’s life” and, in contrast to the past, has made virtually no demands of the West other than halfhearted appeals for a peace treaty.

Prior to the United States and South Korea offering talks, media references to bilateral discussions with the United States were nonexistent; in many respects leaving the impression that North Korea was disinterested in talks at all. In fact, the only mention of talks is from anonymous sources in China, which may not be accurate as the Economist has reported that no high level meetings have taken place between China and North Korea in months. At the same time, Pyongyang’s response to the offer of talks has been to set its own preconditions, demanding the end of sanctions and U.S.-South Korea military drills.

What has become clear in the early stage of his rule is that Kim Jong-un will be different and more willing to engage in provocations than his father. With the growth in rhetoric predating the successful satellite launch and third nuclear test, it seems likely that the shift in leadership style we are witnessing is driven more by the new leadership than North Korea’s recent successful weapons tests. However, those same weapons tests could make the regime more dangerous in the future. With the successful tests behind it, the regime could feel emboldened in the measures it could take, making future crises potentially less stable if Pyongyang continues to escalate the level of rhetoric.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute of America. Andrew Kwon is a recent Masters of International Security Graduate from the University of Sydney. Peter Taves is currently undertaking a Masters of International Economic Relations at American University. The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Photo from theADDproject.com’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

[1] The scope of this study consists of searches of KCNA for the terms satellite, war, nuclear, peace, dialogue, and reconciliation during crisis years of 1998, 2009, 2012, and 2013. Satellite was used as a proxy for terms such as missile in the review of KCNA as the United States and other nations have viewed North Korea’s satellite launches as disguised missile tests and a review of KCNA literature shows that term missile is primarily used in tandem with satellite by North Korea. Nuclear was used as North Korea ties references to its civil nuclear program and nuclear weapons programs together. Denuclearization was not used as it is a term that has only recently become more prevalent in North Korean rhetoric. In 1998, denuclearization was only referenced 4 times by KCNA, in contrast to 42 references in 2012.Through the first three and a half months of 2013, however, there have been 51 mentions of denuclearization in KCNA. Though, it should be noted that denuclearization is increasingly used in the context of something North Korea will not do. The terms war and peace were utilized to highlight the inflationary scale of North Korea’s rhetoric. Though war and peace are generic terms, their consistency as a theme in KCNA articles, particularly in the context of the peninsula, make it an ideal set of control terms for positive and negative rhetoric. Dialogue and reconciliation were used as they represent the primary rhetorical terms for North Korea’s expressed desire for peace in KCNA.

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Comparing the Successions: Kim Jong Il vs. Kim Jong Un

By Luke Herman

As the Kim Jong Un regime completes its eighth month in power following Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011, there seem to be a number of differences between how this succession is being carried out with how it was carried out in 1994. For one thing, it has proceeded at a much more rapid pace: excluding the December 2011 appearances where KJU visited KJI’s bier, he has made 101 appearances in eight months. By comparison, KJI made 88 appearances total from July 1994 – December 1996 as he went through a three-year mourning period.

This piece will attempt to lay out other differences between the successions, possible reasons for them and prospects going forward. In this article I will lay out the background of each succession, examine which elites were important (using on-the-spot guidance inspection data), as well as examining who rose and who fell (and who died) during the respective periods. In addition, I will take a close look at the reemergence of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) under Kim Jong Un, the growing visibility of the security services and what both could mean going forward.


The Kim Jong Il Succession (1994-1996)

The groundwork for the Kim Jong Il succession was laid for nearly twenty years before he formally took over power. He was first mentioned in the North Korean press in the 1970s, but was referred to as the “party center.” His first true public introduction was in 1980 when he appeared at the Sixth Party Congress and was given a number of important party positions. Eventually, as Kim Il Sung aged and declined in health he began to take over the day-to-day affairs of running North Korea, and became Supreme Commander of the armed forces in 1992. Despite this preparation, the regime was not fully prepared for Kim Il Sung’s sudden death on July 8, 1994. There were eleven days between the death and actual funeral, supposedly to allow for the public to fully express their grief but more likely because the regime needed to figure out exactly what message they wanted to convey.

As Ken Gause discusses in his excellent North Korea under Kim Chong-il, there were two major (but related) splits that Kim Jong Il had to overcome as he took the throne: 1) a generational split between the old revolutionaries that fought alongside KIS in Manchuria and in the Korean War and the newer army officials who KJI had become close to, and 2) a hierarchical split that had existed for a number of years as both KIS and KJI had their own lines of communication and power. Failure to adequately deal with either would likely have doomed KJI. He approached both cautiously, keeping in place much of the old guard while consolidating his own rule through appointments of loyalists at lower levels. After the death of O Jin U, who had been Minister of the People’s Armed Forces for almost two decades, he replaced him with Choe Gwang (at that time Chief of the KPA General Staff), another old timer. However, he replaced Choe with a relative unknown, Kim Yong Chun, who had risen through the ranks rapidly (reportedly after putting down a coup attempt by the VI Corps).

The KJI succession came at a particularly difficult time for North Korea. Though the first nuclear crisis had been peacefully settled with the Agreed Framework, the famine (called the “Arduous March” in North Korea) was just beginning. The Party and State institutions that were responsible for economic decision-making and food distribution essentially stopped functioning effectively. KJI, who preferred to rule through informal networks in any case, therefore turned to the only body that seemed capable of responding – the military. Along with the nuclear crisis, the famine was a major catalyst for the songun (military-first) policy that would eventually take hold.

The Kim Jong Un Succession

The KJU succession began in earnest following KJI’s stroke in August 2008. It was after this point that a large number of reshuffles were carried out in 2009 (notably Ri Yong Ho became Chief of the KPA General Staff at this time) and the younger Kim was reportedly accompanying his father on inspection tours (though he was not publicly identified). His formal introduction to the public came in September 2010 at the Third Party Conference, which was the first major party meeting in 30 years. Though his only party post was as Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), he was also named a four-star General and was reported to be working closely with the Ministry of State Security. After this point he appeared frequently with KJI until the latter’s death last December. There was an eleven-day period between his death and the funeral, the same as with Kim Il Sung, and (as many remarked at the time) the funeral ceremony was remarkably similar in style to the KIS funeral.

There are two major differences in how the successions have unfolded. First, the KJU succession is moving at a far advanced pace compared to his father’s. As mentioned before, KJU has already made more public appearances in eight months than his father made in his first two and a half years. Additionally, the mourning period was officially one hundred days as opposed to three years. Finally, KJU acquired the functional equivalent of his father’s titles four months after KJI’s death, and did so through formal means at the Fourth Party Conference in April of this year. KJI, on the other hand, became General Secretary of the WPK in October 1997 by Central Committee and Central Military Committee decree.

Second, and likely related, the regime is facing nothing like the crises that racked the country from 1994-1996. Harsh sanctions remain in place, but the country has adapted and actually experienced modest growth last year. Relations with China are much improved since the mid-1990s and give the regime a buffer against something like the famine reoccurring. Furthermore, the security situation has improved since the regime built a nuclear deterrent to complement its conventional deterrent.

The Elites

This section will detail the elites who appeared with both KJI and KJU most frequently (over 20% of the time) during the post-succession period we are examining. It gives one a good, though not complete by any means, idea of who was being featured prominently at the time, as well as their positions (and any promotions that they received during this time).


–> indicates the elite was promoted from lower rank to higher during this time

KPA = Korean People’s Army

GPB = General Political Bureau

GSD = General Staff Department

CMC = Central Military Commission

NDC = National Defense Commission

Kim Jong Il (July 1994-December 1996)

Elites Who Appeared with Kim Jong Il Over 20%



Position Visits %
Kim Ki Nam Party Secretary (Propaganda); Director (Unknown Department) 47 53%
Kye Ung Thae Party Secretary (Security); Politburo (Alternate) 40 45%
Choe Thae Bok Party Secretary (Education); Director (Education); Politburo (Alternate) 40 45%
Pak Jae Gyong Mil. KPA Col. General; KPA GPB Propaganda Chief 40 45%
Jo Myong Rok Mil. KPA General–> Vice Marshal; Air Force Commander –> KPA GPB Director 36 41%
Kim Yong Sun Party Secretary (International); SPA Unification Committee Chair 36 41%
Kim Kuk Thae Party Secretary (Cadre); Director (Cadre) 34 39%
Ri Ha Il Mil. KPA General –> Vice Marshal; CMC Member; NDC Member 32 36%
Kim Ha Gyu Mil. KPA Col. General –> General; Artillery commander 30 34%
Choe Gwang Mil. KPA Marshal; Chief of the KPA General Staff–> Minister of People’s Armed Forces 28 32%
Kim Myong Guk Mil. KPA General; KPA Deputy Chief of General Staff (Operations Division Chief); CMC Member 26 30%
Hyon Chol Hae Mil. KPA Col. General –> General; KPA GPB Director (Organization) 24 27%
Kim Kwang Jin Mil. KPA Vice Marshal; First Vice Minister of People’s Armed Forces; NDC Member 23 26%
Ri Ul Sol Mil. KPA Vice Marshal –> Marshal; NDC Member; CMC Member; Guard Commander 22 25%
Kim Jung Rin Party Secretary (Worker’s Orgs) 20 23%
Kim Yong Chun Mil. KPA General –> Vice Marshal; KPA GS Director (Logistics)–> KPA GS Chief 20 23%
Total: Party (6), Military (10)

Out of the 16 most frequent accompaniers, 10 were military and the rest held high-level positions within the WPK. Three things are notable from the table:

1)      Clearly we see the beginning of a shift towards the military, and notably a shift towards the next generation military as opposed to the old revolutionaries. Though KJI was cautious in appointing 1.5 / 2nd / 3rd generation military men to the high level positions, nine of his most frequent accompaniers were from this group, while two (Choe Gwang and Ri Ul Sol) were first generation revolutionaries.

2)      The two most frequent accompaniers during this period were the WPK members responsible for propaganda (Kim Ki Nam) and security (Kye Ung Thae), two areas that were critical to a successful succession.

3)      There are no state officials at the top of this list (the first one who is classified as such is Yang Hyong Sop at 19th most frequent). State officials and institutions, not counting the NDC, were simply not a priority at this point.

Kim Jong Un (January 2012 – July 2012)

  Elites Who Appeared with Kim Jong Un Over 20%



Position Visits %
Jang Song Thaek Party Politburo (Alternate) –> Politburo (Full); NDC Vice Chairman; CMC Member; Director (Administration) 62 61%
Choe Ryong Hae Party Politburo (Alternate) –> Politburo (Presidium); NDC Member; CMC Member–> CMC Vice Chairman; KPA GPD Director; KPA General –> Vice Marshal; Secretary 50 50%
Ri Yong Ho Mil. Former Politburo (Presidium); Former KPA GSD Chief; Former CMC Vice Chairman; Former Vice Marshal 35 35%
Kim Ki Nam Party Politburo (Full); Secretary (Propaganda); Director (Propaganda) 32 32%
Kim Jong Gak Mil. KPA GPB First Vice Director –> Minister of People’s Armed Forces; KPA General –> Vice Marshal; NDC Member; CMC Member; Politburo (Alternate) –> Politburo (Full) 28 28%
Pak To Chun Party KPA Col. General –> General; NDC Member; Politburo (Full); Secretary (Military Industry) 28 28%
Hyon Chol Hae Mil. KPA General –> Vice Marshal; Politburo (Full); First Vice Minister and concurrently Director of the General Logistics Bureau of the People’s Armed Forces; CMC Member 27 27%
Kim Yong Chun Mil. Vice Marshal; MPAF –> Director (Civil Defense Department); Politburo (Full); NDC Vice Chairman; CMC Member 27 27%
Choe Yong Rim State Politburo (Presidium); Premier 24 24%
Kim Won Hong Mil. Politburo (Full); NDC Member; CMC Member; MSS Director; KPA General 23 23%
Pak Jae Gyong Mil. KPA General; MPAF Deputy Director 23 23%
Kim Kyong Hui Party KPA General; Politburo (Full); Director (Light Industry) –> Director (Unknown); Secretary 21 21%
Kim Yong Nam State Politburo (Presidium); SPA President 21 21%
Choe Thae Bok Party Politburo (Full); Secretary (Education); Director (Science & Education) 20 20%
Hwang Pyong So Party Deputy Director (Organization & Guidance); KPA Col. General 20 20%
Kim Yang Gon Party Politburo (Alternate); Secretary; Director (United Front) 20 20%
Total: Party (8), Military (6), State (2)

As one would expect, the most frequent accompaniers with KJU is more balanced than under his father. Two notable observations:

  • These numbers certainly lend more credence to the theory that there is a Jang Song Thaek – Choe Ryong Hae alliance. Choe has also made a number of his own visits since being named Director of the KPA General Political Bureau.
  • Two of the top military accompaniers – Ri Yong Ho and Kim Yong Chun –have respectively been removed and demoted. As we all know, Ri was removed in July from all his positions for “illness,” though it is more likely he was purged. Kim Yong Chun was removed from his position as Minister of the People’s Armed Forces and instead became director of the WPK Civil Defense Department – an indication that his stock has dropped significantly. The numbers show a definite shift occurring since May began– before May Ri appeared with KJU 31 times, while Kim appeared 23 times (out of 57 total appearances). The story is drastically different once May began – 4 times for Ri and 4 for Kim Yong Chun (out of 44). By contrast, the splits for Jang and Choe are 32/30 and 24/26 respectively.

Promotions, Purges and Deaths


There were a few promotions during the early KJI years, but none were related to party or state institutions; instead, they were all related to the military or security apparatuses. The most important emerged due to O Jin U’s death in February 1995. As mentioned, KJI promoted Choe Gwang from Chief of the KPA General Staff to Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, while Kim Yong Chun went from being a director of logistics in the General Staff Department to Chief of the KPA General Staff. Jo Myong Rok, who would play a major role going forward, was promoted from Commander of the KPA Air Force to Director of the General Political Bureau. Pak Ki So became commander of the important Pyongyang Defense Command. Jang Song U, brother of Jang Song Thaek, became a Deputy Director in the Guards Command (and may have essentially run the Command in place of Ri Ul Sol.) Furthermore, there were a number of promotions in the military ranks handed out by KJI.

By contrast, the promotions under KJU have also included party and state institutions. Thirteen elites were either added to the Politburo or promoted from alternate to full member or alternate to presidium member. Four were added to the NDC and five added or promoted on the CMC. There were also significant promotions in the military / security apparatuses. Kim Won Hong became Minister of State Security, Kim Jong Gak Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, Hyon Yong Chol Chief of the KPA General Staff and Choe Ryong Hae Director of the KPA General Political Bureau. There were also, of course, the obligatory orders raising military rank for a number of elites. Again, the main takeaway is that the state and party institutions that languished for many years under KJI have been revitalized since his stroke, and received an additional shot in the arm under KJU.

Purges / Deaths

The first three years of KJI’s rule were relatively free of purges, though some occurred at lower levels in the security agencies. The only major events along these lines were the death of O Jin U in February 1995 and the deaths of Choe Gwang and Kim Kwang Jin in February 1997, as well as the defection of Hwang Jang Yop in the same month.

The same cannot be said for the first few months of KJU’s tenure. There have been no major deaths within the regime like KJI faced, but quite a few members have been publicly and privately removed. Most important was the aforementioned Ri Yong Ho, but April also saw the removal of a number of Politburo members (both full and alternate). This includes: Jon Pyong Ho (Secretary of the Politburo), Pyon Yong Rip (SPA Chairman), Ri Thae Nam (Vice Premier), and Kim Rak Hui (Vice Premier). Thae Jong Su, who was previously a member of the Secretariat and Director of the General Affairs Department was demoted to Chief Secretary of the South Hamgyong Province and likely lost his Politburo spot (unconfirmed as of right now). U Tong Chuk, who was (is?) First Vice Director of State Security was also removed from the Politburo, NDC and CMC; however, it remains unclear if he was purged, fell ill or is still in power but had his institutional roles taken over by Kim Wong Hong who is now head of MSS.

The Rise of the WPK

The major story of Kim Jong Un’s first eight months in power is the re-emergence of the WPK. Below is a comparison of elite appearances made during the periods under examination (for Kim Jong Il July 12, 1994 – December 31, 1996, for Kim Jong Un January 1, 2012 until July 25, 2012.) I made a list of every elite who appeared with KJI and KJU during their respective periods, assigned each elite to a particular category (party, military / security, state or provincial), and then tallied the total number of appearances each elite in that particular category made. The percentage is derived from dividing the category number by the total number.

The numbers below show that military figures appeared However, as Stephan Haggard and I have pointed out, classifying elites under Kim Jong Un is not quite as simple as it used to be, especially when it comes to the military. There are a number of elites given military rankings – up to Vice Marshal – who have no real military background, but are essentially civilians in military clothing. As can be seen in the figure below, there is a major difference in the story the data tells based on how one classifies. If one classifies based purely on holding a military ranking, it seems like the military has actually gained prominence under KJU.[1] But if we classify more accurately, it is clear that party members – based on public appearances – are appearing more frequently with KJU (though not by a large percentage).

The evidence gets stronger once we break the KJU numbers down by month as shown in Figure 2. The party and military actually track fairly closely – right up until the beginning of May, at which point we see a huge divergence. Following the April 2012 Party Conference, Aidan Foster-Carter wrote that Choe Ryong Hae’s appointment as Director of the KPA General Political Bureau was “a bid to reassert Party control over a military which under Kim Jong Il rather ruled the roost.” This data gives credence to that idea. Paired with the fact that two of the most influential military men, Ri Yong Ho and Kim Yong Chun, were either removed or demoted as well, there definitely seems to be a pattern emerging.

For comparison purposes, we can look at a breakdown of Kim Jong Il’s appearances (note: due to the more spread out nature of his appearances, these are done by half-years instead of months). This breakdown also fits in well with what we now know about the military’s rise, though admittedly it bounces around much more.

Emergence of the Security Services

Another thing that differentiates the KJI and KJU successions is the greater public prominence of the security services, namely the Ministry of State Security (MSS), Minister of People’s Security (MPS), Guard Command (GC) and Military Security Command (MSC) (the Korean People’s Internal Security Force, which is a part of the MPS, has also been fairly prominent). For a great overview of the history and mission of each of these agencies see Ken Gause’s piece at HRNK.

The below graph compares security members based on the percentage they appeared (out of total elite appearances). It also shows what percentage of the military / security category figure they made up. (Kim Jong Il’s numbers are in blue, Kim Jong Un’s in red)

The heads of these security organizations have also been well-placed in the relevant party and state institutions.

Politburo (29 members)

CMC (19 members)

NDC (12 members)

Kim Won Hong (MSS) Kim Won Hong (MSS) Kim Won Hong (MSS)
Ri Myong Su (MPS) Yun Jong Rin (GC) Ri Myong Su (MPS)
Kim Chang Sop

(MSS – Political Bureau)Ri Myong Su (MPS) Ri Pyong Sam (KPISF)

Total = 14%

Total = 16%

Total = 17%

It should also be pointed out that Jang Song Thaek, who oversees party control of these organizations through his position as Director of the Administration Department, sits on all three institutions.

How does this fit into a shift towards greater party control and a shift away from the military-first policy? Because the security organizations will all play an essential role in ensuring the military does not become a source of dissent. They may also see a chance to increase their own stature, especially as money that was once allocated specifically to the military is freed up.


Given the preceding paragraphs, it’s fairly clear that the KJU succession has been undertaken in a far different way from his father’s. While most analysts were skeptical that an untested 28 (or 29) year old could successfully take control, from the outside (an important qualifier when talking about North Korea) it seems like he has successfully begun the process of consolidating power. He was aided in this process greatly by the security and economic situation, both of which were not nearly as tumultuous as when his father took over. Another overlooked aspect is that many of the same people running this succession were around for the last one, including Kim Ki Nam (propaganda), Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Thaek, It seems likely that they learned a great deal from their previous experience and have used that to their advantage in carrying out this succession. The result has been far smoother than anyone expected. However, whether or not this “smoothness” can translate into meaningful change within the country is anyone’s guess.


Gause, Kenneth E. Coercion, Control, Surveillance, and Punishment: An Examination of the North Korean Police State.  Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012.

Gause, Kenneth E. . North Korea under Kim Chong-Il: Power, Politics, and Prospects for Change.  Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International 2011.

Kim, Insoo, and Min Yong Lee. “Predictors of Kim Jong-Il’s on-the-Spot Guidance under Military-First Politics.” North Korean Review 8, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 93-104.

North Korea Leadership Watch. www.nkleadershipwatch.com

Korean Institute for National Unification. Kim Jong Il Hyunjijido Donghyang 1994-2011

(Analysis of Kim Jong Il’

Ministry of Unification. http://unibook.unikorea.go.kr/?sub_num=54&sty=I&ste=%A4%A1.

[1] Note: Jang Song Thaek has not been classified as a military elite in either  despite being pictured in uniform because his ranking has never been reported by North Korean media. 

Photo from zennie62’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Eternally Present and Future Leadership in North Korea

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

There was an interesting contrast last week on the Korean peninsula as South Koreans went to the polls to democratically elect members for its National Assembly; conversely, North Korea had two meetings to put into place its new leadership structure. Unlike in South Korea where the results were difficult to predict, in North Korea, the predicted outcome occurred with Kim Jong-un being formally given titles to lead the party and the military. The promotions last week offer some possible ideas on leaders that could be significant under this new regime. There were also a few statements and actions suggesting that some in the North Korean leadership know they are not where they need to be as a country. However, prior statements by North Korean leaders indicating reforms could be in the offing have been followed by either the failure to follow through or actions which undercut the prospect of reform. Whatever policies and actions come out of North Korea from now on, they will be associated with Kim Jong-un and this new leadership.

With the Fourth Conference of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and the Supreme People’s Assembly meetings last week in North Korea, Kim Jong-un was officially given titles to run the Party and the military. Moreover, Kim Jong-il now has two posthumous titles, Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and Eternal Chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC). With these new titles for Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un had to settle for First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and First Chairman of the National Defense Commission. He also was named Chairman of the Central Military Commission. KCNA reports noting that decisions were made regarding revising Party rules and the Constitution of the DPRK suggest these documents now reflect these new titles and connections to leadership positions within North Korea, with Kim Jong-un at the head of the Party and military.

The family connections are very important in North Korea, especially for Kim Jong-un. The similarity in physical appearance between Kim Jong-un and his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, have already been noted. Furthermore, many of the phrases in KCNA about the transition to Kim Jong-un are saying these moves are occurring “true to the behest of leader Kim Jong Il.” These connections are important and necessary for Kim Jong-un’s survival.

Kim Jong-un’s living family connections will be significant as well. His aunt and uncle, Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Taek, are seen as vital players in the new leadership. Jang Song Taek joins his wife in the Political Bureau of the WPK, and Kim Kyong Hui got another position in the Party as a secretary in the Secretariat. The key factor will be if Jang Song Taek and Kim Kyong Hui work to help Kim Jong-un and protect him or if they will use their position and influence with their nephew to manipulate power to address their own desired policies.

Beyond Kim Jong-un’s family, a few new leaders are beginning to emerge in the upper elite of North Korean leadership. Announced the day before the Workers’ Party Conference, Choe Ryong Hae was promoted to Vice Marshall in the North Korean Army. The next day he was named Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission. After the Supreme People’s Assembly, he received a position as a member of the NDC.  As a relatively young leader at 61, Choe’s rise should be watched closely. In fact, Choe Ryong Hae has been listed ahead of Ri Yong Ho in at least three recent KCNA articles. Vice Marshal Ri is a Vice Chairman on the NDC and has often been seen next to Kim Jong-un during his visits and meetings.

Kim Jong Gak was also promoted to the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces. Replacing Kim Yong Chun, Kim Jong Gak is seen as another rising power player and was one of the men walking next to the car carrying Kim Jong-il during the funeral. He was promoted to Vice Marshal in the Korean People’s Army in February 2012, and it has been rumored that he might be one of the people tutoring Kim Jong-un on how to use Party mechanisms to control the military.

In addition to these moves, North Korean leaders made a couple short statements suggesting they understand North Korea is not as developed as other countries in the world. Choe Yong Rim, Premier of North Korea, stated in front of the Supreme People’s Assembly: “It is the most important target of the struggle set by the WPK for this year to bring about a signal improvement in the people’s standard of living.” Kim Jong-un was also recently quoted as saying: “It is the firm resolution of the Workers’ Party of Korea to enable our people, the best people in the world who have remained loyal to the party, overcoming all difficulties, to live, without tightening their belts any longer, and fully enjoy wealth and prosperity under socialism.” However, there are numerous quotes in the past from North Korean leaders suggesting a desire to reform and change. It will be the actual actions this new leadership takes that will matter, rather than statements that could be possibly made to sound good for and gain benefits from the international community.

The new leadership announced last week can no longer hide. The big public events in North Korea following the death of Kim Jong-il and connected with the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday are now over. Both the February 29, 2012 deal between North Korea and the United States and the missile launch both seemed to have started under Kim Jong-il. As much as Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are eternally present in North Korea, decisions and actions from now on will be connected with Kim Jong-un and this new leadership.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Joseph A. Ferris III’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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North Korean Workers Party Leadership Chart

By Luke Herman

North Korea recently held a series of meetings to formalize leadership positions in the new regime. Kim Jong-il was named the Eternal Secretary General, while Kim Jong-un became the party’s First Secretary. Here is an updated Workers Party of Korea leadership chart.



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