Power Struggle in North Korea?

The removal of a top military official points to jockeying for power, but not so much over policy, in the reclusive nation.
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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Kim Jong Un (R) claps as he looks at senior military officers, including army chief Ri Yong Ho (2nd L), while attending an official function in Pyongyang, April 13, 2012.

Seven months after the death of North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Il, a power struggle appears to be taking place in Pyongyang, reigniting concerns about the future of the nuclear-armed regime.

Indications of a scramble for power stemmed from the abrupt removal at the weekend of North Korea's veteran military chief Ri Yong Ho and the subsequent promotion of a relatively new general, Hyon Yong Chol, to become a vice marshal in the 1.2 million strong Korean People's Army, among the world's largest.

And Kim's successor son Kim Jong Un, already the supreme military commander, was on Wednesday made marshal in a move clearly seen as aimed at beefing up his authority over the military and tightening his grip on power.

While Ri's dismissal, decided at a rare weekend meeting of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, is the first purge of a senior figure since Kim Jong Un assumed full power last April, it is less clear who stands to gain from the move or whether it would trigger more changes.

This is making Western powers uneasy again about the transition of power in one of the world's most reclusive nations following the December death of Kim Jong Il after 17 years at the helm.

"The uncertainties over the structure and stability of the North Korean leadership is worrisome to the U.S. and its allies because we don't know how secure the regime is—whether there is a power struggle going on and how that will play out with regards to North Korea policy," Bruce Klingner, a former chief of the CIA's Korea branch, told RFA.

"It could leave North Korea to be even more volatile and provocative than in the past," warned Klingner, now a Northeast Asia expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

Further changes in the political and military leadership are "very possible," he said, citing reports that during the past two years, more than 200 North Korean officials have been removed from office.

Some analysts wonder why Ri was ousted when he was among the closest of officials to Kim Jong Un and was appointed by the new leader's father as the apparent guardian of a plan to implement a transition to a third generation of Kim's family leadership.   

The 69-year-old Ri had backed and nurtured the junior Kim since his father's death and was among a select few party and military cadres who accompanied him when he walked alongside the hearse carrying Kim Jong Il.

"For the Workers Party senior leadership to have had to meet on a Sunday in order to review the situation suggests that something highly unusual was going on in here," Evans Revere, a former top Asia diplomat at the U.S. State Department with extensive experience in negotiations with North Korea, told RFA.

It may be an indication that Kim Jong Un, in his late 20's, feels confident enough about his control over the military and other institutions that he is now able to make some very significant changes, said Revere, now an expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

The announcement on Ri's dismissal was made by the two key organs that the young Kim is head of—the Workers Party's Central Military Commission and the National Defense Commission.

"I think it is fairly easy to see this as a manifestation of his exercising of his power over appointment and dismissal," Revere said.

The official announcement cited "illness" as the reason for Ri's removal, but he was seen with Kim and senior military officials paying tribute to North Korean founder Kim Il Sung just a week before—on the July 8 anniversary of his death in 1994.

It is highly unusual for anybody in the hierarchy in North Korea to be removed for health reasons.

Ri's removal invites new scrutiny of North Korean leadership stability and cohesiveness, and once again raises uncertainty regarding the future of the regime, said Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"If the guardian of the succession and one of Kim Jong Il's eight pallbearers can be removed exactly one week after having joined top luminaries in a ceremony on the anniversary of Kim Il Sung's death and after having accompanied Kim Jong Un on at least half of his public appearances since his father's death almost seven months ago, who else among Ri's support network might be at risk?" Snyder asked.

"Is the purge of Ri Yong Ho the beginning of the end of stability in North Korea or is it the end of the beginning [a sign that power has been consolidated, at least for the time being]," he further asked.

Snyder warned that if Ri's removal sparked new challenges or incites rivalries at the top of the North Korean leadership, the country may become a truly volatile and unpredictable source of instability at a time when election-focused South Korea and the United States can least afford a North Korean crisis.

If Ri's ouster is an indication of a more confident and more secure Kim Jong Un being able to purge even those from the inner most circle of power in order to further consolidate his rule, it could also signal that the old guard is pushing back against the inexperienced Kim, Klingner noted.

Ri seems to have had a foot in many camps.

He was a member of the old guard, having been appointed by Kim Jong Il, and was both a military and political figure, having been the chief of the general staff of the army but also a member of the Presidium of the Politburo of the Workers Party Central Committee and a vice chairman of the
Central Military Commission.

It is likely that Vice Marshal Hyon, a little-known career military officer, will eventually take over all of Ri posts as he takes on a higher profile.

"He's come out of nowhere, but interestingly enough he was the commander of the KPA's [Korea People's Army's] Eighth Army, which would put him in charge of some of the border areas of North Korea during a period in which North Korea has been cracking down on bribery and on people trying to escape from the north into China," Revere said.

"To me that might suggest that he is not necessarily a soft-liner himself."

But Revere and other experts do not see the changes announced so far bringing about much-needed policy reforms.

Some take Kim Jong Un's growing-up years in Switzerland, as well as his more recent watching of a show of Walt Disney characters in Pyongyang, as indicative of his desire to implement reforms.

"Brutal dictators can like Western culture but it doesn't mean that their policies will be any more benevolent," Klingner said.

"We need to remember that Kim Jong Il as well as Joseph Stalin liked Western movies."

Revere also said that there was no evidence to support any notion that North Korea, as a result of the announced changes, will head in a different or better direction.

"So far, we have seen more of the same, and I think it is unfortunate, but there you have it," he said.

North Korean leaders realize that change is necessary and has to happen, but they also know that the very change that may happen could undermine the stability of the regime by removing its ability to strictly control everything in the country, Revere said.

"That's the conundrum that they face."


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