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.