Tag Archive | "succession"

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.

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (0)

Does North Korea Belong Back on the List of State Sponsors of Terrorism?

By Gwanghyun Pyun

After the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, there have been increasingly active calls to reinstate North Korea to the U.S. government’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Congressman Ted Poe introduced a bill last month that would put North Korea back on the list, and Ted Yoho (R-FL), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, mentioned that there is a “strong consensus” in Congress on designating North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. With the U.S. government set to release the next update on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in April, many will be watching with keen interest in April to see what position it takes.

North Korea had previously been on the list from 1987 until the Bush administration removed it from the list in 2008 as part of the negotiations on the DPRK’s nuclear program. Since the removal, there has been much debate about whether North Korea should be reinstated, adding it to the three countries now on the list (Iran, Syria, and Sudan). There have been two important components to the conversation:  legal considerations and diplomatic considerations. First, is it legally possible to call North Korea a State Sponsor of Terrorism? Second, if the United States were to put North Korea on the list, will it truly influence North Korea’s future behavior?

In order to legally determine whether a country should be on the list, the U.S. government has to demonstrate that the country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. “International terrorism” means terrorism involving the citizens or the territory of more than one country, while the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents. The reason for the removal in 2008 was, in part, because according to a Congressional report North Korea has not been conclusively linked to any terrorist acts since 1987. In addition, some experts said that many of North Korea’s provocations are state vs. state activities that cannot be legally considered terrorism.

Last February in a hearing, Congressman Brad Sherman insisted that the United States should never have taken North Korea off the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. North Korea demonstrated it is ‘acting with impunity’ in assassinating Kim Jong-nam. In addition, it launched a new type of medium range missile a day before the assassination while Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was visiting the United States. Additionally, North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear program and conducted four tests since being delisted as part of the denuclearization process.

The assassination of Kim Jong-nam has led to increasing calls to reinstate North Korea on the terrorism list. For many, the assassination is an apparent terrorist act because Kim Jong Nam was assassinated at a public airport, allegedly using the highly toxic VX nerve agent, which is classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction. In addition, the chief of the Malaysian National Police Agency announced that the assassination involved a North Korean diplomat and an officer of Air Koryo, an airline run by the North Korean government. Yun Byung-se, the South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, has said that if the assassination was backed by the North Korean government, it is clearly nation-led terrorism. In addition to the latest incident, North Korea has been responsible for several other terrorist-like activities since 2008, such as the cyberattack against Sony Pictures and assassinations plots against high rank defectors and Korean agents.

However, it is far from clear that North Korea can be reinstated to the list. For years, the United States has held its ground and not defined North Korea’s activities as terrorism, especially, in the case of cyberattacks, which have never been defined as terrorism.  Some of North Korea’s other actions, including the assassination, may not meet the requirement of the definition of “terrorism” perfectly.

From the diplomatic view, there is a debate on whether reinstating North Korea to the list would be effective in changing North Korea’s behavior. According to U.S. law, a country on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list faces mandatory sanctions including restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales, certain controls over the export of dual use items, and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions. However, even if the U.S. does not designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, North Korea is already one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world.

Although North Korea is already heavily sanctioned, the effect of relisting would be largely symbolic, without any new sanctions. However, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said reinstating North Korea on the U.S. terrorism list would have the effect of highlighting North Korea’s brutalities. In addition, Professor Robert Kelly of Pusan National University stated “It might tell China that the U.S. is running out of patience, but the U.S. has signaled that before.”

The purpose of the Kim Jong-nam assassination was to strengthen the Kim regime’s hold on power by removing a possible successor. Although the regime’s actions mainly dealt with a domestic situation, it is clear that the assassination deteriorated North Korea’s foreign relations. Its behaviors are also threatening the security of South Korea and Japan, and both countries are supporting calls to put North Korea back on the list of State Sponsor of Terrorism. Now, the voices calling to reinstate North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism are louder than ever in the United States and abroad. The United States government should sincerely listen, and look into restoring North Korea to the list.

Gwanghyun Pyun is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Sogang University in South Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Roman Harak’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (0)

The Impeachment of Park Geun-hye: What Comes Next?

By Troy Stangarone

After three months of deliberations, the Constitutional Court has unanimously accepted the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Since the scandal surrounding President Park and her confidant Choi Soon-sil first broke last fall, South Korea has gone through an extended political crisis. Protesters have gone to the streets in record numbers and the fallout from the scandal has led to the arrest of President Park’s former Chief of Staff, the head of the National Pension service, and Samsung Vice President Lee Jae-yong among others.  With the Constitutional Court having decided to accept the removal of President Park from office, what comes next?

A Snap Election and a Compressed Transition

With President Park removed from office, Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn will select a date to elect a successor. The election must be held within 60 days of the Constitutional Court’s decision. With the ruling having taken place on March 10, the current expectation is that the presidential election will be set for May 9. Acting President Hwang does have some discretion in selecting the date. With two holiday’s in Korea during the prior week, scheduling an election day earlier than May 9 may be complicated.

If regularly scheduled elections are unpredictable (see U.S., 2016 and UK, Brexit), snap elections are inherently more unpredictable. While the compressed timetable gives Moon Jae-in, the leading candidate in polls, an advantage, the dynamics in a short campaign could change quickly and provide few opportunities for a candidate to rebound should there be a sudden shift.

The new president will take over as soon as their victory has been certified by election officials and serve a full five year term. While prior incoming administrations had a transition period between a December election date and inauguration day on February 25, the new administration will have no transition period. Additionally, the inauguration date for presidents going forward, will move to the next president’s inauguration date, should there be no constitutional reforms to set a fixed date.

Compressed Political Primaries

With elections approaching, each party will need to select their candidate. In a normal election, the political parties would have sufficient time to implement a primary process. While the political parties control their primary process, we have already seen indications of how the process will be shortened. The Minjoo Party conducts a two round primary, unless on candidate receives 50 percent of the vote in the first round. As part of the primary, they hold a voting tour similar to the U.S. primary system where votes are staggered across different regions. In light of the compressed campaign calendar, the voting tour will be reduced to four areas for the upcoming election.

While Korean election law requires presidential elections take place over 23 days, there will be an incentive for the parties to select nominees as soon as possible to begin the process of unifying the party behind their standard bearer and putting in place a plan to win the upcoming election.

Game Changing Events

In the United States, every campaign heads into the final stretch of the election concerned that there could be an “October surprise.” The idea of the October surprise is that there is some unforeseen event that fundamentally reshapes the election in a way that the campaigns cannot control. Each campaign will need to prepare for such a game changing event, especially in what could be a fluid election race. In a short campaign cycle, even normally less significant events could alter the race if a candidate does not handle their response to changing events well.

Political Alliances

Should Moon Jae-in secure the nomination of the Minjoo Party nomination, he will be the odds on favorite to win. He currently leads all of the political contenders in the polls at 36.4 percent and narrowly lost to Park Geun-hye in the 2012 presidential election. During that election, the failure to quickly develop an alliance between Moon and the other main opposition candidate at the time, Ahn Cheol-soo, may have cost him the election. There have already been suggestions that other candidates may try to form an alliance to preclude Moon from winning the presidency. With South Korea now having four major parties, in the absence of an alliance, there is also a greater chance those opposed to Moon Jae-in would likely divide the opposition vote. This will be another factor to watch as the election proceeds.

Can Conservatives Smooth Their Divisions

During the impeachment debate, conservatives in South Korea split over whether to support President Park or to vote against the impeachment. Tensions between President Park’s strong supporters and other party members, however, predated the impeachment process. Ultimately, significant numbers of the then Saenuri Party (recently renamed the Liberty Korea Party) voted for the president’s impeachment and many of those who voted for the impeachment left to form the new Bareun Party. One of the story lines to follow will be whether conservatives are able to heal their rifts and put together a united ticket or whether divisions remain.

Will Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn Resign and Seek the Presidency?

Currently, the strongest contender for president from the conservative side is Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn. After Ban Ki-moon withdrew his candidacy, many of his supporters shifted their support to Acting President Hwang, who has risen to nearly 15 percent in one of the most recent polls. However, should Acting President Hwang decide to seek his own term as president, he would need to resign from his current role as Acting President and Prime Minister. If he does intend to run, he will most likely resign sometime shortly after setting the new date for the election so as to be eligible to run in the Liberty Korea Party’s presidential primary. Should he do so, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Strategy and Finance Yoo Il-ho would become acting president.

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 Fredrick Rubensson’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (3)

The Death of Kim Jong-nam: Implausible Deniability

By Mark Tokola

The story of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination took a bizarre turn with the announcement by Malaysian authorities that the cause of death was a banned chemical weapon, the nerve agent VX.  It is only supposed to be held in limited quantities by the United States and Russia. However, it has been reported that North Korea has been developing stockpiles of VX, among other substances banned by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, of which North Korea is not a party. The Malaysian announcement seems to have removed almost any remaining doubt that North Korea was responsible for the assassination, but why would North Korea choose to use such an exotic method when other, more prosaic, means of assassination were available?  And why choose a weapon that would be so obviously traced back to North Korea?

Kim Jong-nam’s assassination has now become reminiscent of the 2006 assassination of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in London.  Litvinenko was also killed by exotic means, exposure to a rare radioactive substance, Polonium, which was placed in a teapot used by Litvinenko in a hotel restaurant.  Once the cause of death was established, it immediately placed suspicion on the Russian government.  Litvinenko was a critic of Vladimir Putin’s and had exposed mafia-like behavior on behalf of Russian officials.  Litvinenko, like Kim Jong-nam, had predicted that he might become the victim of a state assassination.  Russia denied any responsibility for Litvinenko’s death, but an inquiry conducted by the British government concluded in 2016 that Litvinenko had been killed by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), and probably by the direct order of Vladimir Putin.

The parallels between the two assassinations are strong.  Both Kim Jong-nam and Litvinenko were exiles from authoritarian regimes, both were killed by spy-novel type means that would clearly seem to indicate state-sponsored murder, and both of the authoritarian regimes that they hoped to have escaped denied any public responsibility for their deaths.  Nevertheless, an exhaustive UK official inquiry established high confidence in Russian culpability in Litvinenko’s death, and it is now close to straining credulity to conclude that anyone other than North Korea could have murdered Kim Jong-nam.

Why would Russia and North Korea have carried out assassinations in ways that would point back to them?  Because it serves their interests to appear responsible while at the same time formally denying responsibility.  Both Russia and North Korea claim to adhere to international law.  In an official statement, North Korea, brazenly, accuses the government of Malaysia of violating international law by conducting an autopsy and not releasing Kim Jong-nam’s body to them – without acknowledging that the body is in fact Kim Jong-nam’s.  If Russia and North Korea announced that they had carried out the assassinations, they would be guilty of breaches of international law, possibly leading to sanctions and certainly becoming subject to international opprobrium.  The countries in which Russia and North Korea had murdered their countrymen, the United Kingdom and Malaysia, would have grounds to take diplomatic countermeasures, perhaps expelling their diplomats, minimizing relations, or taking economic steps.  Denying responsibility allows Russia and North Korea to claim to be in compliance with international law, to defend themselves against diplomatic countermeasures, and to allow themselves to continue to draw support from those at home and abroad who prefer to ignore the evidence.

Leaving their fingerprints on the assassinations also has its purposes for Russia and North Korea.  It makes clear to current and potential defectors and dissidents that they can find no safety from retribution by living abroad.  It also signals to the world that Russia and North Korea have the means to project power, albeit in a heinous manner.  They can have it both ways.  Call it implausible deniability.

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

Photo from David Stanley’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (2)

The Murder of Kim Jong-nam

By Mark Tokola

According to news reports, Kim Jong-un’s brother, Kim Jong-nam, was murdered in Malaysia on February 13.  He reportedly died while being transported from the Kuala Lumpur airport to a hospital, apparently as the result of poisoning, which seems to be the preferred means for modern dictators to dispose of threats (see what has happened to Putin’s critics).  Details will emerge later, but it would be surprising if Kim Jong-nam was not killed on the orders of his brother, Kim Jong-un, given that North Korean agents have reportedly tried to assassinate Kim Jong-nam in the past.  In looking for a motive for the murder, there is a Latin phrase for it, “Qui bono?” (“Who benefits?”).  There are very few that would directly benefit from Kim Jong-nam’s death other than his half-brother in Pyongyang.

What can we say about the murder of Kim Jong-nam?  First, it seems probable that the motivation for the murder was a continuing sense of paranoia on the part of Kim Jong-un, which may be a well-placed paranoia.  Whether or not Kim Jong-nam was actively plotting against Kim Jong-un (and there is scant evidence of that), he provided an alternative for North Koreans who would want to depose Kim Jong-un.  Kim Jong-nam has been fairly quiet in his exile, but was quoted in the Japanese press in 2010 as saying he opposed dynastic succession in North Korea.  Since taking power in 2012, Kim Jong-un has been eliminating those he has perceived as threats: first his uncle, Jang Sung-taek in 2013, and now his brother, Kim Jong-nam in 2017.  Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Second, the murder of Kim Jong-nam may be interpreted as another North Korean affront to China.  Kim Jong-nam has been living mostly in Macau, certainly under Chinese protection, and was quoted in 2012 as saying that North Korea needed “Chinese-style economic reform.”  Some commentators have theorized that the government of China was keeping Kim Jong-nam in reserve with the option of helping him assume power if Kim Jong-un fell in the future.  Jang Sung-taek was too close to China for Kim Jong-un’s taste; the same may have been true of Kim Jong-nam.

People will remember Kim Jong-nam as the Kim brother who tried to visit the Tokyo Disneyland on a false passport.  He now is likely to also be remembered as another victim of Kim Jong-un’s ruthlessness.

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

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

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (0)

Jang Song Taek’s Public Purge from North Korean Leadership

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

It looks like South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) got it right when they suggested to National Assembly members that Jang Song Taek had been removed from his leadership posts in North Korea. Kim Jong-un made it very clear and very public that Jang Song Taek was out of favor and out of power when North Korean media broadcast Jang’s dismissal. This very public purge changes the questions this week about Jang’s actual fate to the actual fate of North Korea. Two main areas where Jang Song Taek was thought to have influence, the economy and relations with China, are key indicators of North Korea’s future. Jang’s dismissal will focus attention on these aspects of Kim Jong-un’s policies for North Korea, yet many questions will still remain, and unfortunately, there are still very few good opportunities and options for the outside world to try to address them as well.

Jang Song Taek was believed to have influence over some economic policies in North Korea, and one of the main accusations against Jang was his selfish and contrary economic policies to the desires of Kim Jong-un and the Workers’ Party of Korea. Among the various issues raised to discredit him and his economic power, North Korean media said Jang “seriously obstructed the nation’s economic affairs and the improvement of the standard of people’s living,” that he was “making it impossible for the economic guidance organs including the Cabinet to perform their roles,” and the “selling of precious resources of the country at cheap prices.” Before the purge, Jang was thought to be playing a big role in attracting foreign investment, especially from China in the SEZs along the border. Although there are thoughts that Jang did not have as much economic influence as is portrayed, the perception was there. How important was Jang Song Taek to the pursuit of economic reforms in the dual track policy of economic growth and a strong military? Will North Korea be able to attract investment and projects, especially from China, without Jang Song Taek?

Part of Jang Song Taek’s apparent power was his connections with China. As mentioned, Jang had been important in some of North Korea’s economic ties. He had visited China multiple times, and Kim Jong-un sent him to China in 2012. However, one of the pieces of information thought to indicate Jang’s demise was Kim Jong-un sending Choe Ryong Hae to China in 2013. With Jang Song Taek out of power, how will China perceive the internal dynamics of North Korea? China is North Korea’s most important ally and friend. Did China see Jang Song Taek as an important stabilizing factor during the transition to Kim Jong-un? The Global Times, a Chinese publication often meant for a foreign audience, suggested in an editorial that Chinese leadership invite Kim Jong-un to China for a meeting to assure China of North Korea’s stability.

The key questions on North Korea’s economy and its relationship with China are key determinants for the future of North Korea itself, which is the biggest question itself. Does Jang’s removal mean that Kim Jong-un is in charge or does it mean he is in trouble? Initial reaction seems to lean toward Kim Jong-un being in charge. If true, decisions and actions taken by North Korea will be seen even more so as Kim Jong-un’s. It appears Kim Jong-un still wants to pursue the byungjin line of both economic reforms and enhancing their nuclear capabilities, and now he will have to do it without Jang Song Taek.

Whether Kim Jong-un is in charge or is in trouble after the purge of Jang Song Taek, both possibilities present problems for the U.S. and its allies, demonstrating once again why North Korea is seen as the land of no good options. The rules are changing in North Korea, as the whole country and world saw with the removal of Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong-un’s own uncle. These changes, along with vicious purges, heightened border security to reduce defections, detaining tourists, and provocative rhetoric suggest unfavorable trends for meaningful positive interaction with North Korea by the U.S. and its allies.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Felix42 contra la censura’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (4)

North Korea Allows Internet Access (For Foreigners)

By Chad O’Carroll

On Friday the Associated Press Pyongyang bureau reported that North Korean authorities will allow foreign visitors to access the internet using cellular devices from March 01. Predictably, the news was published with the caveat that access conditions will not change for local citizens, who will remain cut off from internet access and remain unable to make calls to foreign countries for the foreseeable future. As such, the news triggered skepticism in some quarters that the step was undertaken simply to encourage tourism and increase revenue for the North Korean government. But even if that is the case, there are nevertheless several reasons why we should be encouraging the relaxation in North Korean telecommunications.

Just four weeks ago, rules that prevented tourists bringing their cell phones in to North Korea were finally relaxed, a development that meant foreigners would no longer have to surrender their devices upon arrival in Pyongyang. Coming just weeks after Google Chairman Eric Schmidt’s recent trip to North Korea, many may now be wondering if his visit was behind the cellphone and internet access developments. But while some might see the recent news as evidence that Pyongyang took heed of Schmidt’s pronouncements, comments made by Orascom staff to Xinhua News suggest these changes had been long planned and were not consequently related to the Google trip.

Over the past four years Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Company has been working closely with North Korea to develop and expand the KoryoLink cell phone network. Run as a joint venture based on 75% Orascom and 25% North Korean ownership, the Cairo based tech firm put a strong focus on ensuring the DPRK cell network would use the latest 3G cell tower technology from the outset. As a result of this step, the North Korean network was always going to be ready for internet access, provided of course there was sufficient political will in Pyongyang. Now, with 92.9% of population areas covered by KoryoLink’s network, as a result of today’s news it seems that foreigners should be able to access the net wherever they go.

While only 30,000 tourists visit North Korea per year, their potential to access the internet could prove to be the first step towards a gradual opening up of the DPRK telecommunications infrastructure. North Koreans already comprise some two million KoryoLink subscribers, though currently they can only use their devices to communicate internally. However, some of these subscribers can already access limited domestic data services, to find weather reports or local news, for example. Looking to the medium to long-term future, it’s therefore quite possible that this latest move could pave the way for North Korea to roll out a limited internet service (perhaps similar to Iran) to its own citizens as a logical next step.  The same thing has already happened in Cuba, where tourist based access paved the way for increasing domestic access and even the emergence of blogs written by Cubans, but published via USB keys passed to foreigners who have net access in international class hotels.

Another benefit of foreigners being able to access the internet while in North Korea is that it could seriously catalyze the speed at which important world news gets to the country. While those coming into regular contact with foreigners tend to come from the top tiers of North Korean society, that foreigners will now theoretically be able to spread news as it happens means the development will lead to a new and credible addition to the country’s infamous “bush telegraph”. And though little is known about how the North Korean government intends to prevent local citizens from ever using approved devices to access the internet, we can bet that some will find a way. To be sure this will be a tiny fraction of people, but given North Korea’s history of an impermeable iron curtain, it is meaningful in any case.

It will be particularly interesting if foreigners will be able to access South Korean news and information websites through the KoryoLink infrastructure. Even if these and other websites do turn out to be blocked, it won’t take long for crafty visitors to get around the rules using VPN and other IP proxy technologies. As such, the only way Orascom will really ever be able to assure its North Korean hosts of absolute control will be to shut off access for everyone, completely.  Such a move can’t be discounted, with cell usage having been dramatically curtailed in a u-turn policy change on made by Pyongyang in 2004, the year an explosion took place allegedly near to Kim Jong Il’s passing train.

Another benefit of the move will be that it will be easier for visitors to share with the world the reality of life in North Korea. With photography having long been restricted and visitors subject to random photo deletions by over-zealous border guards, the latest development should theoretically allow foreigners to upload pictures straight to the internet, as quickly as they take them. Naturally, it is likely that access will be monitored to some degree, but the more widespread access becomes, the harder it will be for DPRK authorities to track use.

One potential hurdle to the above advantages relates to costs.  To date foreign residents and business people have been able to access the internet access using satellite technology, but the costs have been so exorbitant that it has significantly reduced the potential for the internet to have many of the positive effects described above.  Unfortunately, figures obtained by the Wall Street Journal suggest that for its part, the new mobile internet service will not be cheap, with a set up fee of around 150 EUROS for the SIM card, then data fees of around 150 euros for 2GB of bandwidth. Prices this high mean it will be expensive for people to get the type of access required to create the various impacts detailed above, but it’s a start nonetheless. And while the high fees reflect that access is currently aimed more at long term residents than tourists, a KoryoLink technician said that his team was working to persuade the North Korean government to get permission to introduce cheaper and short-term tourist focused services. Time will tell how significant Friday’s development is, but it seems clear that any opening, no matter how small, should be welcomed and encouraged vigorously.

Chad 0′Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from djking’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (1)

Is North Korea Communist?

By Gilbert Rozman

Much is made of dynastic succession, of long periods when the organs of communist party rule are moribund, and of the military first policy in North Korea. To many, these are incompatible with the communist system. Yet, the meaning of this system keeps changing from Karl Marx to contemporary Chinese rule. Taking Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong as the two main architects of the system and Vladimir Putin and Deng Xiaoping as the two central figures in transforming its legacy with an eye to maintaining the core of its national identity thrust, I apply below a six-dimensional approach to national identity to assess whether North Korea merits inclusion in what I label the Communist Great Power National Identity Syndrome.

Recently, I introduced a framework for comparing national identities and am close to completing a book manuscript applying it to the communist legacy in China and Russia.[i] On each dimension of identity I found strong similarities between the two as well as compelling differences. Without denying important differences in the case of North Korea, I explore the similarities here in order to ascertain if the label communist is suitable for its national identity seen from a comparative perspective.

Of course, North Korea is not a great power. This syndrome is perceived as an outgrowth of a state following an autonomous path in the building of socialism and regarding itself as independent in political authority, cultural purity, and foreign policy. After they had consolidated their power, Stalin and Mao charted paths that put their countries at the center in all dimensions of identity, but so too did Kim Il-sung. Despite lacking the international presence of China or the Soviet Union, his country differed from all other countries under communist rule in its insistence on an exclusive ideology and identity as well as a military posture that left little chance of foreign pressure or intervention, a legacy that has not receded since his death. It is reasonable to expect that similarities prevail with the communist great powers.

The ideological dimension is an obvious basis of comparison, since for a long time communist states were similar in quoting Marx and Lenin, if not others, as the infallible voices of a doctrine of biblical significance. What Stalin and Mao proved, on the foundation established by Lenin, is that ideology deemed to be communist, can be twisted to serve a personality cult and a single nation’s autonomous course. Each put the superstructure of “class consciousness” above the substructure of command economy. Anti-imperialism as well as opposition to socialist reform thought loomed high. In these respects, North Korea under Kim Jong-un is consistent with his father and grandfather in maintaining the ideological identity. Deng and Putin have shown how ideological identity survives even after a wave of questioning and pragmatism. Quotations recede or disappear. Class struggle is disavowed. Control over the peaks of the economy is reaffirmed after privatization occurs in its troughs and cronies are rewarded with riches if they prove deferential to state authority and corruption. In North Korea crony enrichment seems to be at an early stage, while Kim Jong-il left the cult of his father intact, extending it with his own cult, consistent with the legacy.

Although the precise mix of socialism, anti-imperialism, and Korea-centrism is not the same as the role of anti-imperialism in China and Russia today and the way socialism is prioritized more in China and sinocentrism and Russocentrism are brought into the amalgam, ideological identity does not depart from the pattern. We should have long ago rejected the notion that some wrinkles in how leaders may be quoted and which principles may be cited mean that communism has been rejected. Whether or not Russia is included in the Communist Great Power National Identity Syndrome, due to the abandonment of communist party rule, North Korea deserves to be included, according to the standards fitting for both old leaders and new ones.

The temporal dimension poses a separate challenge for national identity. It is expressed in communism’s stage theory of development, which reigned supreme to the late 1980s when Deng and Gorbachev stressed borrowing from capitalist states. Yet, key elements survive in the 2010s: the history of the West and Enlightenment is deeply flawed and not superior; movements against imperialism were heroic; and in their achievements in building socialism past leaders deserve heavy praise. For the North Korean leaders there is special appeal to the argument that convergence must not be allowed, because it would result in a sharp setback to national identity and the advance of national power. South Korea poses a threat on this dimension, and in China and even to mainstream Russian writers opposition to the United States in the Korean War is vindicated in the battle with imperialism. If North Korean rhetoric is more extreme, that does not obviate the fact that some basic similarity still exists.

North Korea shares with China and Russia the view that the Cold War in Asia is not over. They agree in assessing the period since 1990 as a time of ideological threat from the United States, which is still driven by anti-communism. Rather than the Six-Party Talks producing a consensus of 5 vs. 1 behind de-nuclearization as the priority in a new age centered on joint responsibility by the great powers to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and terrorism, Beijing and Moscow seconded the view in Pyongyang that Washington’s “regime change” and “universal values” thinking is a throwback to the Cold War, which all must oppose in order to resolve the nuclear crisis and lay the foundation for a new era when alliances are dissolved.

Of course, communism has long been characterized by veneration of leading voices in the history of the movement. While shared adoration of the same pantheon of leaders has lessened, each country’s preoccupation with salvaging its own figures is a unifying feature. Russia is the outlier, but Putin’s partial rehabilitation of Stalin has narrowed the divide. While treatment of North Korea’s past leaders reverts to the “cult of personality” approach of old, contrasting to China’s relative silence on Mao, the pattern is within the boundaries of how communist states deal with this.

In the case of sectoral identity, North Korea has long been insistent on its autonomous path (juche), despite an inability to export its model, unlike the Soviet Union and China in their ideological heyday. As first China and then Russia modified its economic national identity by accepting globalization, including the importance of the WTO, North Korea adheres to old thinking hostile to the market. Yet, as the limits of Chinese and Russian support for a shared economic model with capitalist countries have become more apparent, prevention of heavy dependence on the outside can be seen to have parallels to North Korean psychology, notably toward allowing South Korean economic leverage. Opposition to Western models of political identity is also shared. Finally, hostility toward cultural penetration that threatens to cause “Westernization” unites China, Russia, and North Korea, although North Korea’s economic, political, and cultural identities are an extreme version of Maoist China and Stalinist Soviet Union.  Autonomy is not a sign of eschewing communism.

For a time there was uncertainty about how far leaders in Moscow and Beijing were going in breaking away from the established communist models of economic, political, and cultural national identity. Pyongyang’s refusal to allow similar openness left it in a rut in the 1990s when communist identity appeared passé. Yet, beginning with cultural identity and proceeding to economic identity, Moscow and Beijing have buttressed what is increasingly a distinct political identity.  One reason they fear the collapse of North Korea is that this outcome would cast new doubt on their identity claims, while reinforcing Western triumphalism.

Vertical identity refers to claims about the uniqueness of the way society is organized, always a bulwark in communist contrasts to capitalist societies. While in China and Russia the theme of class conflict is dead, contrasts have grown sharper of late with the West amid insistence on “non-interference in internal affairs.” Rarely do Chinese or even Russian authors criticize North Korea’s internal affairs. The fact that North Korea offers a reminder of the extremes of Stalinism and Maoism is not used to criticize it nor has the North continued to criticize the domestic policies of these other two states. The comparative study of communism never gained traction in Russia after its distorted role in discrediting China during the Sino-Soviet split, and it was stopped in China in 1987 for being too threatening to party legitimacy.

Vehement rejection of critiques of human rights is shared in the three states. They each contrast this approach to the “regime change” obsession in the West. It is not that they agree on how much terror to allow in suppressing dissent or freedom to condone in allowing individuals to pursue personal interests as long as there is no danger of a civil society forming, rather it is their opposition to the threat of external influences fueling NGO activism or democratic movements that leads to an overlap.

The military first policy puts North Korea at the extreme in prioritizing its armed forces, but this has parallels. The Soviet Union allowed military leaders to have an enormous say on all sorts of policies until Gorbachev’s reforms, which after much obfuscation revealed the true dimensions of the diversion of funds away from the consumer sector and the deference to the military in both foreign and domestic policy. In the Cultural Revolution, Mao turned to the military as the primary source of authority and, after decades of Deng’s adjustment in priorities, the military again has a special say outside of the state system and critical at times when leadership transfer is occurring. In 2010-12 its voice has been magnified to an extent that still is not easy to decipher. Under Putin, the term “siloviki” is used to refer to a mixture of security services, including the military, who have come roaring back to power. It is insufficient to say that “military first” disqualifies North Korea as communist.

The horizontal dimension is serving to draw China and Russia closer to North Korea. This is seen in the shifting manner these states have approached the problem of U.S.-North Korean relations. Both China and Russia have cautiously cooperated with the United States on rebuking North Korea and Iran for their nuclear weapons programs, sustaining an active bilateral dialogue with the United States and even voting for some resolutions at the United Nations Security Council. In principle, they have agreed on a shared endeavor. Yet, in the way they often frame the disputes, the culprit appears to be the United States, whose role is distorted in a manner to widen the identity gap with their own country. Diplomacy may at times have appeared somewhat promising, but identity rhetoric reveals that necessary trust is missing. What is more, North Korea’s outlook on how to transform regional security and manage a process of reunification is closer to the views of China and Russia. They agree on the desirability of weakening U.S. alliances and forming a new, multilateral security structure in Northeast Asia, while preventing South Korea from taking the lead in reunification and sustaining its close U.S. ties.

Finally, there is intense emphasis on national identity with no sign of reversal in each of the three states. China’s intensity has been building since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Russia’s intensity has mounted since Putin renewed his claim to the presidency in 2011, and North Korea’s hyper-intensity shows no signs of diminishing as Kim Jong-un establishes his legitimacy. Since the time of Lenin campaigns to showcase the special nature of one’s country have repeatedly characterized the Soviet Union, Mao gave them the highest priority, and North Korean leaders have followed suit. Communist-led states feature this type of rhetoric, and the fact that North Korea’s narrative weighs dynastic authority and uniqueness highly does not signify a break with the general pattern. Many argued that Stalin had broken away from the communist model, then that Mao had, and finally that North Korean leaders have. A comparative approach casts doubt on this view.

Photo from Nedko’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

[i] Gilbert Rozman, ed., East Asian National Identities: Common Roots and Chinese Exceptionalism, (Washington, DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2012); Gilbert Rozman, ed., National Identities and Bilateral Relations: Widening Gaps in East Asia and Chinese Demonization of the United States, (Washington DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2012). The new manuscript is Gilbert Rozman, “The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order: National Identities Compared and Bilateral Relations Transformed.”

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (4)

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.

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (2)

Kim Kyong-hui’s Health and the Fate of Jang Song-taek

By Nick Miller

The Korean Times reported on September 7th that Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyong-hui, was in ill health stemming from her past abuse of alcohol. Kim Kyong-hui serves as one of the guardians of Kim Jong-un along with her husband Jang Song-taek. After Kim Jong-il’s suffered a stroke in 2008 he had to look to his sister to help secure the Kim legacy and prevent a power vacuum from occurring after his death.  The Elder Kim elevated both Kim Kyong-hui and Kim Jong-un to the rank of General in the Korean’s People’s Army (KPA) at the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) Congress in September 2010. This was done to help further secure a safe leadership transfer to his son and his chosen guardians if Kim’s health deteriorated any further.

Potential Power Struggle

As with most medical reports on North Korean leaders verification of these reports is difficult if not impossible. Baek Seung-joo, at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, said that without Kim Kyong-hui it would significantly impede Kim Jong-un’s ability to manage the elites, the other Kim relatives, or the military. Baek believed that Kim Jong-un would have to rely upon Choe Ryong-hae, who is a Vice-Marshall in the KPA and has strong family ties to the Kim family because he cannot trust his uncle, Jang Song-taek.

Whether there is a power struggling going on between Jang and Kim that remains to be confirmed as Kim needs Jang Song-taek’s guidance to handle agricultural reforms that are potentially being put into place and serve as Kim Jong-un’s herald as he did during Jang’s trip to China in August.

Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University, believed that Choe’s promotions to Vice-Marshall and Director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA despite never holding any military position is an indication that the WKP has been working to reign in the dominance of the military and regain their lost control over the decision making process.

The removal of Ri Yong Ho over the summer, a former hardliner for Kim Jong-il’s military-first policy, and his replacement with Choe, allows Kim Jong-un to secure further support for his goals without the elites that were put into power by his father to stop him from initiating economic reforms.  Kim jong-un needs the support of the military if he wants his regime to have any longevity and the market reforms China has been asking for have faced strong resistance by the military leaders like Ri Yong Ho.

The Potential Fallout over Kim Kyong-hui’s Death      

Ahn Chan-il, director of World North Korea Research Center, said that if Kim Kyong-hui does die this could undermine her husband’s ability to control reforms as he is only married to a Kim family member, but her death was not “critical variable” to Jang losing his influence over the other elites and Kim Jong-un.

Currently there is likely no other person as strong as Jang Song-taek within North Korean politics that Kim Jong-un could rely on for advice and assistance. Lee Cho-won, political science professor at Chang-Ang University, stated that Jang has a wide network of people and experience that Kim Jong-un needs to utilize in order to carry out reforms and solidify his legitimacy. Though whether Jang will be happy with continuing his No. 2 position and attempt to assert further control in the future remains unknown. It is likely that as Kim Jong-un is able to secure a strong enough power base under him that he will likely move away from his uncle’s guidance.

South Korea’s The Chosun Ilbo, reported in July that Jang Song-taek was in firm control over the North Korean political machine and successfully dismantled Kim Jong-il’s power structure. The article points to the fact that after Kim’s death in 2011 Jang successfully removed Ri Yong Ho and U Dong-cuk, Ri’s deputy director. Baek Seung-joo, commented that there was no reason for Kim Jong-un to remove the support system his father put into place after only seven months of ruling the country.

Jang has been seeking the removal of numerous rivals after his fall from grace in 2003. Some of Jang’s key rivals like- Ri Je-gang, deputy director of the WKP Organization and Guidance Department, died in a mysterious car accident in May 2010 and a few days later Jang was promoted. Ryu Kyong, one North Korea’s spy chiefs was accused of treason and purged in 2011.  Jang has been successful in promoting elites that would be loyal to him- Choe Ryong-hae, Ji Jae-ryong, North Korea’s ambassador to China; Ri Yong-su, head of the Party’s labor groups, because they have had strong relationship with Jang for decades.

While unnamed intelligence sources cited in the Chosun Ilbo article stated that the limit to Jang’s power was the health of his wife and once she passes on Jang’s ability to control elite politics will be over.  Whether Choe will stay loyal to Jang or side with Kim Jong-un is not known. The most likely scenario is that Jang will continue to assert firm control over his supporters and prevent Kim Jong-un from securing a power base of his own, so that after his wife’s death he will still be in control. Jang’s ability to survive should be not be understated as he has withstood a purge in the 1970s and more recently in early 2000. As he continues to remove more rivals and install his own supporters his seat of control over North Korean politics will remain strong and could likely cast a long shadow over Kim Jong-un for many years.

Photo from Tormod Sandtorv’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (1)

About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.