A New Face in Pyongyang

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The recent appointment of Jang Jong Nam as North Korea’s Minister of People’s Armed Forces, replacing veteran Kim Kyok Sik, was a surprise given the short time in office that his predecessor held. In fact, ministers of People’s Armed Forces under Kim Jong-un have only held their position for an average of eight months. Kim Kyok Sik appeared as minister in October 2012 replacing Kim Jong-Kak who had only been in power for a few months after his elevation in April 2012 when he replaced Kim Yong Chun.

Given this rapid turnover of ministers at the People’s Armed Forces, speculation arises about regime stability in North Korea. Does Kim Jong-un have full control of the army? Is he in a fight with the hardliners? Was the “hardliner” Kim Kyok Sik opposed to “reformist” Park Pong Ju’s recent appointment as prime minister?

Such questions are impossible to answer with any certainty. Besides, it is never a good endeavor to place regime elites in categories of “reformist” or “hardliner” as if their interests never change and remain constant. Certainly everybody would support reforms to some degree, it would be more of a question about what is sacrificed or altered to meet objectives such as economic growth or greater industrial output. In any case, when it comes to the regime’s survival, everyone with a vested interest becomes a “hardliner.”

In this respect, more noticeable is the person that Kim Jong-un brought in as his new minister for the People’s Armed Forces. Jang Jong Nam is younger than his predecessors and is relatively unknown. Ministers of the People’s Armed Forces have generally been “elders” of the military who have had a long service history as well as extensive political experience inside the halls of power in Pyongyang. This has often been the case as they are often used as a counterbalance to the other military chiefs. In the 1998, Kim Il Chol was a surprise announcement as Minister of People’s Armed Forces given his naval background, but was considered to be counterweight to military heavyweight Cho Myong Rok.

Jang was a corps commander based outside of Pyongyang with little political experience. Look back to July 2012 and this resembles the appointment of Hyon Yong Chol as Chief of the General Staff following the purge of Ri Yong Ho. Like Jang, Hyun was a regional corps commander with limited experience of life inside the palaces of Pyongyang. Yet there could be more to this. In some ways, we could be seeing a repeat of the appointment of Kim Il Chol who acted as a counterweight. Is Jang’s appointment possibly to counter Hyon Yong Chol’s position and power? This deserves closer attention over the months ahead. It does raise further questions on how Kim Jong-un’s is managing the military.

The military in North Korea is under the control of three different institutions that all report directly to the Supreme Commander but not with each other. Alongside the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces are the General Staff and the General Political Bureau. In a basic sense, the ministry manages logistics, the General Staff oversees military operations, and the General Political Bureau ensures loyalty among the troops. The reality though is that their responsibilities often overlap and each department checks the other’s power.

This system of checks and balances among different institution with direct reporting to the Supreme Commander is the way in which Kim Jong-il managed the country. Lacking any credible military background and facing opposition to his succession, Kim Jong-il had to institute such a system to ensure his regime was “coup-proof.”

Of course this system meant the construction of a close patronage network among figures in the military, personal relationships formed over the years between Kim Jong-il and favored generals. As noted by Ken Gause, the challenge for Kim Jong-il before he died was that this system was not easily transferable to his son who had little time to establish himself. There were two ways in which the regime sought to overcome this difficulty. The first was in establishing a guardianship group to guide Kim Jong-un and ensure loyalty to him among the army. This has been led by Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek and his aunt Kim Kyong Hui, but includes key figures like Choe Ryong Hae who heads the General Political Bureau. He is a close confidant of Jang Song Thaek who worked with him in the Kim Il-sung Youth League. Crucially, Choe’s family has been a key supporter of the Kim family since its origins. His father Choe Hyun was one of Kim Il-sung’s comrades from their anti-Japanese guerilla days and later helped pave the way for Kim Jong-il’s succession when it faced opposition.

The second element was utilizing the party to support Kim Jong-un. Ken Gause points out that the succession process turned to the party as an institutional foundation for Kim Jong-un to establish his rule. Key to this was the revival of the Party’s Central Military Commission which had largely been inactive during the Kim Jong-il period. It was notable that during the Kim Jong-il period it was barely mentioned in the media, but its meeting was strongly publicized shortly before North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February 2012. Revival of the Central Military Committee allowed Kim Jong-un direct access to senior military personnel which would facilitate the construction of his patronage network.

And this is what has been emerging over the past year. Kim Jong-un has proceeded to establish his own patronage network by sidelining his father’s favored generals. Along with Hyon Yong Chol’s appointment has been the elevation of another younger army officer Choe Pu Il to Minister of Public Security. With Jang’s promotion, Kim Jong-un may even be creating balance and checks between military chiefs from a similar generation. As it stands, the key positions in the military and security forces are all staffed by persons close to Kim Jong-un or at least dependent upon him.

What does this hold for the future? Kim Kyok Sik has been largely portrayed as a hardliner, possibly due to his involvement in overseeing of the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island. As his removal from power follows the appointment of the so-called reformist Pak Pong Ju as prime minister, it could be interpreted as a sign that those long-awaited reforms will be about to take place.

The North Korean regime though is not so clearly divided between doves and hawks, reformists and hardliners. For a start, Jang’s appointment would have been cleared by other so-called hardliners. As the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces is under the direct chain of command from the National Defense Commission (NDC), the highest political body in the country, senior figures in that group, including his predecessors, would have approved Jang’s appointment. This includes military figures like NDC Vice-Chairman Kim Yong Chun, who is rumored to have even made Kim Jong-il blush with his hard-line stance in the past. While we are seeing new blood come into higher positions, it would be still a little premature to see this as a shift to the reformers.

Regardless of whether reforms will be attempted or not, the nuclear issue still overshadows such efforts. Moreover, given Kim Jong-un’s expressed commitments to songun or military-first politics, any reforms would only be half measures. This is not to say that efforts by Kim Jong-un to carry out reforms should be ignored or dismissed, but that they should be taken within the context of the limits of the leadership’s survival. And this is a regime that wants reforms without weakening its total control on political life, not an easy task indeed.

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Nuclear Tests and North Korea’s Identity

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When North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on February 12, 2013, it was seen as a response to international sanctions imposed following its satellite launch in December 2012. While most analysis tends to utilize a cost-benefit approach toward North Korea’s decision to conduct a nuclear test, it is also worth considering the domestic reasons behind the decision based upon the regime’s identity and internal politics. In this respect, the test should not be seen as simply a knee-jerk reaction to international sanctions or even as a desperate effort to get the Obama administration back to the negotiating table. The decision to conduct a nuclear test was likely taken when Kim Jong-un came to power and was simply a matter of timing and domestic circumstances.

It is noticeable that the regime considered a nuclear test following the international condemnation of its failed satellite launch in April 2012. There was evidence that preparations were underway at the Punggye test site; however Pyongyang decided in June 2012 that it would not conduct a test for the time being. From a cost-benefit perspective it is possible to see this as the result of diplomatic efforts by China to persuade North Korea not to carry out a nuclear test. In the end though, Pyongyang did go ahead with its third nuclear test despite Beijing’s opposition, showing that Kim Jong-un is following his own path. In fact, there were domestic issues that worked against a nuclear test being carried out in 2012. Firstly, analysis of satellite images shows that the test site itself was flooded in the summer of 2012 which was only cleared out by the autumn. Secondly, the removal of army chief Vice Marshal Ri Young Ho in July 2012 shows that there were significant internal difficulties for Kim Jong-un to take care of before he could order a nuclear test. Even more significant, Kim Jong-un was only named as Marshal of Korea People’s Army in July after the removal of Ri. This announcement was noticeable because this position was assumed by his father Kim Jong-il in 1992 and signified his formal ruling of North Korea as Kim Il-sung took a backseat. Twenty years later, it again symbolizes Kim Jong-un’s formal ruling of North Korea.

The importance of nuclear weapons for North Korea becomes clear when considering the kind of regime that Kim Jong-un has inherited, one whose national identity conception is “oppositional nationalist.” Jacques Hymans has outlined the way in which the regime can be labeled as “oppositional nationalist” and how this explains Pyongyang’s decision to go nuclear. In his article, Hymans details that the regime has two main national identity characteristics; fear and pride. The fear leads them to seek markers of security, while pride results in markers to establish autonomy and power. Hymans explains that “The bomb is a symbol of the nation’s unlimited potential, of its scientific, technical, and organizational prowess, and also of its tenacity in the face of strong international condemnation. Moreover, not only do fear and pride increase the perceived value of nuclear weapons, they also short-circuit the normal processes of reasoned deliberation that even oppositional nationalist leaders often use to make decisions, and in doing so they propel the leader to act precipitously.”

Given this description of the regime, it is possible to look at North Korea’s decision to conduct its third nuclear test, and arguably of its previous tests, as being based on deep-seated psychological desires rather than as part of negotiating ploy with the United States. That is to say Kim Jong-un has long considered the need to conduct a nuclear test since his ascension to power in December 2011 based on the need to maintain his father’s legacy.

This point is further reinforced when considering that in late May 2012, North Korea amended the preamble of its constitution; the part that outlines the achievements of the state to include nuclear weapon. While this may only be the preamble, it does constitute what the regime regards as its national identity by setting out the official legacy of the past leaders; Kim Il-sung as the founder and Kim Jong-il as the sustainer. Among Kim Jong-il’s legacy are Songun (military-first politics) and the development of nuclear weapons. This was a signal that North Korea would likely conduct a nuclear test in order to display the achievements of Kim Jong-il and the enduring legacy of Songun. Nuclear test in the future will again be used as markers of its security and sovereignty as well as a symbol of the everlasting achievements of Kim Jong-un.