The biggest stories regarding North Korea in the past half year have revolved around the North’s international interactions; their leadership change, their (botched) rocket launch, and the ensuing suspension of U.S. food aid, all brought a critical spotlight upon Pyongyang as Kim Jong-Un sought to find his footing on the foreign relations stage.
This past week has seen a shift towards the domestic (marriage pun intended), as Kim Jong-Un instigates massive internal upheaval in attempts to solidify his power:
- Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the Chief of the General Staff of the Korean Peoples’ Army ousted from all positions
- General Hyon Yong-chol promoted to Vice Marshal and named the new Chief of the General Staff, replacing Vice Marshal Ri
- Kim Jong-Un promoted to Marshal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
- Kim Jong-Un taking economic control away from the North Korean Military
- Kim Jong-Un married Ri Sol-ju
Vice Marshal Ri was initially cited to have stepped down due to “illness,” though current rumors indicate that said health problems include being shot to death. Vice Marshal Ri was part of Kim Jong-Il’s attempt to surround his son with a younger staff of mentors before his untimely death last year, with Ri only having stepped into the Chief of General Staff role in 2010. He was seen at Kim Jong-Un’s side often during the past six months, from Kim Jong-Un’s father’s funeral, to the festivities revolving around Kim Il-Sung’s 100th birthday in April. His exit is a massive changing of the guard.
Most North Korea watchers had assumed that this younger (younger meaning, in their 60s) military generation would guide Kim Jong-Un, perhaps even controlling the young leader’s decisions. The DPRK military had grown to extreme heights over Kim Jong-Il’s tenure at the helm, and a military-dominated state was the norm in all policies domestic and international.
Vice Marshal Ri’s quick exit and replacement, as well as Kim’s promotion to the de facto head of the DPRK military, demonstrates a desire by the Kim Jong-Un regime to reign in the control of the military. Kim’s recent actions indicate a potential successful surpresion of a coup attempt, and Kim’s seizure of economic control is the final nail in the coffin for any military-first policy continuation, barring a successful future coup. There will likely be further purges and potential mutinies, but Kim looks to have shored up his support, at least in the short-term.
In dismantling his father’s military first policies, bringing the armed forces back under the control of the party, and removing the military from economic decisions, Kim Jong-Un’s is backtracking from everything his father established (which was Kim Jong Il’s own way of maintaining power in the 1990s). Beyond just resemblance, Kim Jong-Un is making every effort to bring North Korea back to a Kim Il-Sung-ian existence.
This author would be remiss if he didn’t mention the recent reports on attempts by South Korea and North Korean defectors to blow up the massive Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il statues in Pyongyang. With all these whirlwind purges and changes, the DPRK government obviously needs big events to occupy the national psyche. Invented South Korean plots and news of their leader’s recent marriage to Ri Sol-Jun are perfect to both keep the public placated and uninvolved in what’s really going on.
If Kim can continue to reign in usurpers and mutineers and find some method of feeding his people (beyond psychological news reports), this strategy may yet pay off. People forget, but there was a time when North Korean prosperity outweighed that of the South. Though the strains of a semi-Communist Juche system began to show in the late 1970s and 1980s, the true crash in North Korea’s internal prosperity all fall under memories of Kim Jong-Il and the famines of the 1990s.
Kim Jong-Un’s friendly public demeanor and marriage are all attempts to heavily associate Kim with his grandfather. Now his actions are backing up his attempts to steer North Korea towards prosperity. The heavily centralized DPRK government will have a difficult time replicating Chinese economic success stories, but removing military control of the economy will provide at least some potential for North Korean development. Yesterday’s pact with China to consolidate their countries’ friendships points toward a North Korea still yearning for such a developmental model.
Perhaps the U.S. should test the North Korean waters again? They might find brand new negotiators.
Craig was born & raised in the United States, having recently returned there after over five years in Asia. He is currently pursuing further education in the realms of East Asian Studies and Politics. Craig is an avid fan of the political, economic, and military machinations occurring throughout the Asian continent and how those turning gears affect the rest of the world. He's currently covering both North and South Korea for Asia Security Watch, enjoying shedding light on to this far-too-often ignored slice of Asia.
Craig Scanlan has 82 post(s) on Asia Security Watch