Further Speculations on North Korea

January 3rd, 2012

By Dan Miller

Kim Jong-ilStrange things can happen behind closed doors.

As I’ve observed many times, North Korea is a black hole from which little light emerges; what little useful information escapes usually consists of propaganda and speculation. Here’s some more speculation.

Part of the Eurasia Group report about the top risks of 2012 involves North Korea.

Don’t be fooled by stories of how smoothly the transition is proceeding in Pyongyang. The first rule of analyzing North Korea—it’s the world’s most opaque regime and no one really knows what’s going on inside—has not changed. Maybe things really are going smoothly. Maybe they’re already off the rails.

Much the same has been said many times before. However, one assertion later in the report caught my attention because I hadn’t seen it before:

To be sure, there is no North Korean political spring waiting to bloom. There will be no demonstrations, no opposition. It’s a totalitarian state. There’s no reform, no apparent demand for change, and a massive (when they fall, they fall hard) outpouring of emotion ongoing. Just as with the death of Mao and Stalin, those bases are covered. But Kim Jong-un is no Deng Xiaoping or Nikita Khrushchev, and security from within the circle around him is an entirely different matter.

It’s like what they say about family firms: The first generation builds it, the second hangs on to it, the third destroys it. And there are already warning signs in North Korea that the third time will not be the charm—the quick announcement of events to roll out the new leader revealed that they weren’t adequately prepared, and a number of high-ranking political figures have died lately in car accidents in a country notably short on cars. In short, the preparations for transition were hurried and violent—and the transition is now in motion. (Emphasis added)

Have “a number of high-ranking political figures” really “died lately in car accidents?”  What’s the basis for the assertion? Which “high-ranking political figures” and how many?  It may be true and, if so, supports the view that some preparations for the transition from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un were “violent.” Have there been any signs of an incipient coup d’état?  Did the allegedly deceased “high-ranking political figures” include some in the North Korean military? Military and civilian leaders in the political structure often seem to play musical chairs; sometimes there are enough chairs for all, sometimes not.

I observed here, as did many others elsewhere, that the highest ranking, de facto if not de jure, minders and keepers for Kim Jong-un seem likely to include

some immediate family members and others from the military. A list of family members who will likely have the real power is provided here, in Lebanon’s Daily Star. They include Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong-il’s brother in law, and Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui who was Kim Jong-il’s sister. She is “the link that ties Jang to the ruling family.” She had been “the person Kim Jong Il had increasingly turned to in recent years for advice and friendship” and was “the most active companion of Kim Jong Il during his frequent field guidance trips, according to the North’s state media.” There are several others and “few observers believe either Jang or his wife will try to push the junior Kim out and grab power for themselves.” They and the members of the military who are expected to share power will likely stick together in supporting continuation of the Kim Regime because it will be in their best interests to do so. So will be maintaining their regency as the real locus of power. However, it remains to be seen who will be the most powerful of the regents.

On the other hand, Kim Jong-un’s regents may not want him to continue even as a ceremonial figurehead.  It was noted in the Wall Street Journal that

The annual New Year’s message of North Korea’s government, released Sunday, praised Kim Jong Il far more than it did when he was alive and broke form by not including a message from its current leader, who is now Mr. Kim’s son Kim Jong Eun.

The message said that 2012

is the year “when Kim Jong Il’s plan will bear a brilliant fruit, and the year of a grand march, when a new century of Kim Il Sung’s Korea begins.” In the place that usually carries a direct quote from the dictator himself, however, there was nothing. …

The message [released at the end of 2010] contained 36 mentions of Kim Jong Il, 19 of Kim Il Sung and 15 of the new leader Kim Jong Eun. By comparison, the 2011 message had 10 mentions of Kim Jong Il, 13 of Kim Il Sung and none of Kim Jong Eun. (Insert added)

There were lots of preparations for the transition to Kim Jong-un before and after the death of Kim Jong-il.  Successful transitions have been very important in preserving the Religion of Kim and the religion seems necessary to keep the little people in line.  There may well have been shakeups and they may be continuing. It would be very useful to have more and better information, but in view of our limited and uncertain sources there will probably long waits for it. As observed here,

it is difficult to identify not only key power personalities, but even power mechanics in a nation where politics takes place, at best, behind closed doors, and at worst, ends in front of firing squads.

“We are going to see a lot of changes in personnel,” said Dr Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “In the case of Stalin and Mao, it took just a few months for the population to know a significant number of people were purged.”

North Korea’s governance structure is, itself, murky. While the Korean Workers Party and its highest organs, the Polibureau and the Politburea’s Central Committee, officially oversee the armed forces, under Kim Jong-il’s “military first” policy, the Korean People’s Army, or KPA, appears to have massively expanded its influence: A key message sent by Kim Jong-il’s funeral and memorial ceremonies was the predominance of the military.

Kim Jong-ilDoes this photo, from the Wall Street Journal article linked above, suggest military predominance?

Meanwhile, here are some pretty photos of other, more attractive, folk from Pyongyang who seem to be happy, well fed and prosperous. At least now.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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One Response to “Further Speculations on North Korea”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Great job on the North Korea articles, Dan. Too few people are paying attention to what is one of our major security concerns. The Korean Peninsula, along with Iran, could go hot at any time. In both cases, we’re dealing with irrational regimes that can’t be trusted to act even in their own best interests. Not at all like the days of the Cold War, when the U.S. and Russia, for all their failings, generally behaved rationally and avoided serious conflict.

    As to what these nummies in North Korea will do, I don’t think there’s any way to predict. The Chubby General is obviously not up to the task, and while we can assume that the ruling clique is rational enough to preserve the status quo, how can we know what pressures they’re under and how they see their options? Dangerous times.

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