N. Korean Conundrum: Are Political Changes Real?

Jul 20, 2012
Originally published on July 20, 2012 10:28 pm

North Korea's army has been swearing oaths of loyalty to leader Kim Jong Un after he was given the new title of marshal of the nation, cementing his position. This comes just days after the army chief was dismissed for illness. Analysts suspect these announcements are masking far deeper changes, but there's disagreement about what it means.

"These events have happened with remarkable speed for North Korea," said John McCreary, a former senior intelligence analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff who now tracks national security threats at KGS, a government solutions company in Virginia. "Nothing happens fast in North Korea unless there is a crisis."

He believes the speed with which these appointments unfolded hints at a serious power struggle, saying, "The pace of events and the outcome means there was insubordination — military insubordination."

Possible Reasons

Just seven months ago, the dismissed army chief, Ri Yong Ho, was one of the chosen few walking alongside the car carrying the body of North Korea's late leader, Kim Jong Il. Ri was a key figure smoothing the power transition to the younger Kim, so his precipitous fall sends a powerful message. No one knows the reason.

"I don't think he was dismissed for health reasons," says Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia deputy project director with the International Crisis Group in Seoul, noting that senior North Korean officials often stay in honorary positions despite bad health as a gesture of respect.

"I don't think he was plotting or against the regime or Kim Jong Un, but it's not impossible," Pinkston says. "But more likely, I think he might have been involved in some kind of corruption scandal. I think, of the possibilities, that's a plausible one."

As the military lines up to swear loyalty to Kim, some believe this is a purge of the old guard. The man introduced as the new chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army, Hyon Yong Chol, was only named as a four-star general in September 2010. Others posit this could be a fight over resources.

In an unusual step, two civilians were appointed to the National Defense Commission, which oversees the army. They were Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Sung Taek, and Choe Ryong Hae, whose role as politburo chief, the top position in the People's Army, gives him control over the army's vital foreign currency business.

"There is speculation about a power struggle between the military and the bureaucrat or civilian side over this important source of funding for the regime," says Sheen Seongho of Seoul National University in the South Korean capital. "Military has been dominating all the foreign trade, and now the civilian side is trying to take over the very lucrative side of the business. If that is true, it's not only about power, but it's also about money."

It could also be a struggle over the country's very future. For years, North Korea has followed a policy of songun — or "military first." Since coming to power, Kim Jong Un has quietly emphasized the welfare of ordinary people. McCreary says this reshuffle points to a new direction.

"To me, the military-first policy of his father has been quietly downgraded," he says. "My assessment at this point, based on the limited evidence we have to date, [is that] the underlying issue was probably military priorities — and should the military consume so much of national resources?"

McCreary thinks Kim Jong Un is returning to the priorities set by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. "He appears to be channeling Kim Il Sung," he says. "That seems to be deliberate, as well as a result of the policy machine."

'Simply A Style Change'

Chinese analysts, though, think the military-first policy is still in place. "Significant changes are almost impossible in the long term," Wang Junsheng, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the China Daily. But the Korean Joongang Daily reports that seven North Korean officials have spent several months in China's richest village, Huaxi, studying its path to wealth. This hints at the possibility of economic changes ahead.

But other changes are undeniably already happening — among them, the appearance of dancers dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse at a concert, where women in short black minidresses also performed.

In a country where symbolism is all-important, the appearance of Western cultural icons such as this is no small matter. Watching the show was Kim himself, accompanied by a female companion who was fashionably dressed with stylish cropped hair. It's not clear who she is, but a first lady would be a marked departure from the days of his father, Kim Jong Il, who kept his personal life private and is only known to have given one speech in 17 years.

Kim Jong Un has given several long speeches and appears more charismatic and more prone to hugging people. But Pinkston, who has recently visited North Korea, cautions that such changes are superficial.

"This is simply a style change," he says. "But I would argue all of the structures, the political institutions, the indoctrination that goes on — all of those things are pretty much unchanged, so the system goes on as it was going on before."

As an orchestrated demonstration of loyalty to Kim Jong Un, soldiers danced in the square in Pyongyang. A ripple of instability appears to have passed, but no one knows whether it's over yet or whether it will spread.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

North Korea's army has been swearing oaths of loyalty to leader Kim Jong Un after he was given the new title of marshal of the nation, cementing his position. This comes just days after the army chief was dismissed for illness. Analysts suspect these announcements are masking much - far deeper changes. But as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, there's disagreement about what it means exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: This was the prelude to a special announcement in a week of shock announcements.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: The 20-something leader, Kim Jong Un, was named marshal of the nation, increasing his authority over the army, this just days after the former army chief was dismissed for illness and a relatively unknown military man named in his place.

JOHN MCCREARY: These events have happened with remarkable speed for North Korea. Nothing happens fast in North Korea unless there is a crisis.

LIM: John McCreary is a former senior intelligence analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now tracking national security threats at K-Force Government Solutions in Virginia.

MCCREARY: I do know that the pace of events and the outcome means that there was insubordination involved - military insubordination. Because it occurred over - in less than three days. Normally these kind of things take over - like years.

LIM: Just seven months ago, the dismissed army chief, Ri Yong Ho, was one of the chosen few walking alongside the car carrying the body of North Korea's late leader, Kim Jong Il. He was a key figure smoothing the power transition to the young successor, Kim Jong Un, so his precipitous fall sends a powerful message. No one knows the reason, but few believe he was ill, according to Daniel Pinkston in Seoul for the International Crisis Group.

DANIEL PINKSTON: I don't think he was plotting or against the regime or against Kim Jong Un, but it's not impossible. But more likely, I think he might have been involved in some kind of corruption scandal. I think of the possibilities, that's a plausible one.

LIM: As the military lines up to swear loyalty, others posit this could be a fight over resources. Two civilians have been appointed to important army positions, with one of them gaining control over vital foreign currency business. Sheen Seongho from Seoul National University explains why this is important.

SHEEN SEONGHO: There was speculation about this power struggle between the military and the bureaucrat or civilian side over this, you know, important source of funding for the regime. The military has been dominating all those foreign trade, and now the civilian side try to take over that kind of very lucrative business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: Or it could also be a struggle over the country's very future itself. For years, North Korea has followed a policy of songun, or military first. Since coming to power, Kim Jong Un has quietly emphasized the welfare of ordinary people. According to John McCreary, this reshuffle points to a new direction.

MCCREARY: To me, the military-first policy of his father has been quietly downgraded. My assessment at this point, based on the limited evidence I've seen to date, the underlying issue was probably military priorities. Should the military consume so much of national resources?

LIM: Chinese analysts, though, still believe the military-first policy is in place. But other changes are undeniably happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MICKEY MOUSE CLUB" THEME SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse. Hey, hey, hey.

LIM: Among them, the appearance of dancers dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse at a concert, where women in black mini-dresses also performed. These Western cultural icons were applauded by Kim and a female companion. It's not clear who she is, but a first lady would be a marked departure from the days of his father, who kept his personal life private and is only known to have given one speech in 17 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

KIM JONG IL: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Kim Jong Un, however, has given several long speeches and appears more charismatic, more prone to hugging people. Daniel Pinkston cautions such changes are superficial.

PINKSTON: This is a simply a style change. But I would argue all of the structures, the political institutions, the indoctrination that goes on, all of those things are pretty much unchanged, so the system goes on as it was going on before.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: Soldiers dance in the square, an orchestrated demonstration of loyalty. A ripple of instability appears to have passed, but no one knows whether it's over yet or whether it will spread. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.