Anyone outside North Korea trying to determine what’s happening in that country might rightly feel confused.
Alongside North Korea’s missile launch last month, other less publicized moves by the country’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un may bode ill for peace and security on the Korean peninsula. Kim has continued to purge top military officers, and it appears now that a number of their replacements are “hard-liners.”
Much of this information comes from South Korean media reports, some of them based on sources in South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.
Readers should be warned at this point that South Korea’s intelligence agency has a mixed record regarding purges of leading figures in North Korea.
But a pattern seems to be shaping up, judging partly by the recent public appearances of certain top officials and military officers at Kim Jung Un’s side and the absence of others who used to be seen accompanying the North Korean leader.
South Korean analysts seem to agree that Kim Jong Un has purged dozens of high-ranking officials and military officers, with many believed to have been executed.
More Tension Expected
The growing prominence of hard-line party cadres and military officers to replace those who have been removed or purged could add more tension to an already high level of tension over the next few weeks, according to Michael Madden, who writes for the respected U.S.-based North Korea Leadership Watch Blog.
Madden says North Korea’s hard-liners, or hawks, support a “more belligerent policy” toward South Korea, the United States, and Japan and “generally do not favor North-South engagement.”
Only briefly noted in many Western media reports, Kim Jong Un has apparently appointed Kim Yong Chol, a senior army general, to head the country’s United Front Department.
General Kim is reputed by a number of sources to be a hard-liner and is said to have overseen, in the spring and fall of 2010, the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship as well as an artillery attack on a South Korean island.
In his United Front role, Kim would replace Kim Yang Gun, who died in late December from what North Korea’s official news agency described as an automobile accident.
Kim Yang Gun was part of a delegation from North Korea that helped to reduce rising tensions with the South in August 2015.
The United Front Department position is important not only because it collects intelligence on the South but also because it handles North Korean talks with the South Koreans as well as the running of exchanges with them.
Those exchanges are now frozen.
Also lost in the flurry of media reports on the February missile launch were South Korean reports of the arrest of Ri Yong Gil, North Korea’s army chief of staff, for abusing power and “forming a clique.”
The Yonhap news agency in South Korea, apparently drawing on South Korean intelligence, reported that the four-star general was executed last month following his arrest. But this could not be immediately confirmed.
Gen. Ri is the fourth chief of the army general staff to be removed by Kim Jong Un since he came to power in 2011.
Purging his father’s team
A number of others purged since Kim Jong Un came to power have included officials and military officers close to his father and much older than the new leader, who is believed to be 33 years old.
“Kim Jong Un has been significantly more brutal than his father,” says Andrei Lankov, a Russian historian and expert on North Korea, referring to Kim’s late father Kim Jong Il.
“And he’s been particularly hard on the military.”
Most prominent among those purged was Kim Jung Un’s uncle, Jang Song Taek, a key adviser to Kim Jong Il and then to Kim Jong Un himself. Jang held the title of Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission, which placed him second only to the supreme leader.
Jang was also North Korea’s key interlocutor with China.
In December 2013, Jang was executed after being charged with trying to create a “counterrevolutionary faction.”
Such purges and executions as well as continuing reports of senior officials fleeing North Korea—reports that are not all confirmed—have led to renewed speculation among North Korea watchers as to the stability of Kim Jung Un’s rule.
Some specialists argue that North Korea’s policies are hard to predict because the country’s young leader is erratic,
But others, such as Robert Carlin, a former CIA expert now a visiting scholar at Stanford University, argue that Kim is far more rational and calculating than erratic.
Things to watch
To understand what’s happening in North Korea at the moment, it would help to focus on the upcoming congress of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party scheduled for May of this year, the first such ruling party congress to be held in 36 years.
According to Michael Madden, North Korea’s nuclear test in January and missile launch in February can both be seen at least in part as an attempt by Kim to strengthen his hand ahead of the congress.
The purges and executions can also be regarded as part of Kim’s continuing effort to consolidate his power.
But analysts say that in preparing for the congress, Kim must also show that he can make progress in improving the North Korean economy. Supplying his generals with modern weapons may not be enough to retain their loyalty.
In contrast with his father’s Songgun, or “military first,” policy, Kim Jong Un has pledged to pursue a Byungjin line, a policy of simultaneous nuclear and economic development.
But the country’s economic development could now be slowed by the new and tougher United Nations-mandated sanctions that the U.S. and other countries are imposing on North Korea.
Some experts suggest that if the sanctions cut deeply into the regime’s cash flow and the so-called Royal Economy, which provides extra income and luxury items to leading officials and military officers, it could undermine Kim Jong Un’s grip on power.
But as The Wall Street Journal noted recently, U.N. sanctions contain several loopholes: For example, a ban on North Korean exports such as coal would apply only to sales that fund illicit activities. Coal purchases excused on “livelihood or humanitarian grounds” would still make money for regime.
The sanctions also don’t stop the income taken by Pyongyang from the earnings of tens of thousands of North Koreans working overseas in factories, logging camps, and construction sites in China and Russia as well as a number of other countries.
The secretive Royal Economy that helps Kim Jong Un to “buy the loyalty” of leading officers and officials and sustain their privileged lifestyle is vital to the stability of the regime, according to some analysts. But it requires reliable streams of cash, much of it coming from overseas.
Another way of rewarding military officers who stay loyal is to continue giving them lucrative construction contracts as Kim Jong Un has done as part of his efforts to embellish the capital city of Pyongyang and build more apartments for the elite.
“The Royal Economy has steadily grown to become the regime’s primary source of revenue,” says Ken E. Gause, author of a new book titled North Korean House of Cards and published by the non-profit Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
“The very stability of the regime, to say nothing of the survival of the Supreme Leader, is based on this highly secretive part of the economy,” says Gause.
Gause says that the despite the evident failure of sanctions against North Korea in the past and the insufficient implementation of sanctions on the part of China and others, the international community has succeeded in recent years in severely curtailing much of the Royal Economy's funding derived from illegal weapons sales, drugs, and counterfeiting.
“This has forced North Korea to look elsewhere, such as building statues for other dictators” says Gause, “and trading gold and other precious metals, where transactions are exclusively cash-based, leaving no paper trails.”
Gause concludes that Kim Jong Un “faces an uphill battle to consolidate his power, which will take at least two years to complete.”
That might explain purges aimed at reasserting Workers’ Party control over the military as well as recent threats made against South Korea and the United States aimed at least partly at bolstering nationalistic fervor.
Dan Southerland is RFA's Executive Editor.