Those who have heard of recent news about North Korea will be interested in the fact that Kim Jong Un received the title of Marshal of the Republic and that the Korean People's Army's Chief of General Staff Ri Yong Ho was relieved of all his posts. I think these two developments are closely related.
Ironically, these changes in North Korea may not have anything to do with Kim Jong Un.
Kim Jong Un, who is young and has not had a chance to solidify his power base, may be a dictator with no power within the current political circles. It looks like against such a scenario, Kim’s circle began the struggle for power.
Kim Jong Un already had supporters when Kim Jong Il ruled North Korea. Kim Kyung Hee, Jang Sung Taek, and Ri Yong Ho became his supporters as his father had wished.
Aside from the Kim family’s close high-profile officials such as Kim Kyung Hee and Jang Sung Taek, the supporters included representatives from the party and administration. They all have titles of military generals, but it is hard to consider them as soldiers.
On the other hand, Ri Yong Ho, who devoted his whole life to the military, is considered one of the most typical military men.
It seems that the relations between the Workers’ Party and the People’s Army began deteriorating in March and April this year. Many new Party officials have no military experience even though they wore uniforms just like Choi Ryong Hae.
At the same time, high-ranking military officers who served in the military for their entire careers and the military as a whole began losing their powers.
Dismissing Ri Yong Ho struck a serious blow to those whose backgrounds are in the People’s Army. The military lost its leader overnight. Of course, officially, Ri was removed because of his health, but no one believes it.
Ri was a relatively young leader compared to those in similar positions. In addition, there was no need to hold a meeting on a Sunday if Ri was going to be discharged only for health reasons.
Giving the title of Marshal to Kim Jong Un also requires a meeting of high-ranking party officials such as Jang Sung Taek. This also is to emphasize the superiority and importance of the party.
It remains to be seen what these conflicts between the military and the party will mean politically in North Korea.
We can just say an invisible power struggle is taking place in the inner circle of North Korea. Some view the military as conservatives and high-ranking officials in the Workers’ Party as progressives. This is possible, but it is hard to say with the available information.
However, the fights between the military and the party which are so obvious that even regular people notice could weaken the roots of the North Korean regime in the long run.
Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.