TSG IntelBrief: North Korea: Striking the Right Balance in a Time of Uncertainty
July 31, 2012

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As of late July 2012, the leadership transition in North Korea continues. In April, North Korea celebrated the centenary of the birth of its founding leader, Kim Il-sung. Added importance was attached to the event owing to two factors. First, the regime had designated 2012 as the year that North Korea would become “a great and prosperous nation” (kangsong taeguk), even though this was an implausible goal given the dire state of the economy. Second, following the sudden death of Kim Jong-il last December, the period of celebration in April was an opportunity to formally appoint his son, Kim Jong-un, to the top positions in both the state and the nominally ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), and emphasize the continuity in leadership of the Kim family.

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Maneuvering for Power

In further developments, North Korea reported on July 16th that Ri Yong-ho, the chief of general staff and the most senior political figure in the Korean People’s Army (KPA), had been relieved of all of his posts ostensibly owing to illness. Ri Yong-ho’s departure, announced promptly by Pyongyang standards, was almost as sudden as his rise. His was a new name to outsiders when in February 2009 he was named as KPA chief of general staff. The son of a former defense minister, he had led the defense command for Pyongyang since 2003. He was a near contemporary of — and actually considered close to — Kim Jong-il.

In an odd move, Choe Ryong-hae, another member of Kim Jong-il’s circle, was made a vice-marshal despite having no military background and was put in charge of politics in the KPA. Choe Ryong-hae also vaulted over Ri Yong-ho on the WPK Presidium, and seems to have largely replaced him as Kim Jong-un’s point man in the KPA. Ri Yong-ho was healthy enough to lead a delegation to Laos in May, and so his “illness” appears to be a pretext. Indeed, in Pyongyang’s gerontocracy, 69 years of age is considered relatively youthful…and this may not be the last such event.
 
The ousting of the powerful head of the army was immediately followed by Kim Jong-un’s self-promotion to the preeminent military rank of Marshal. (The title, which is the top functioning military rank, was held by both his late father and grandfather.)  Analysts read this as one of many signs that Kim Jong-un is planning to rule North Korea through the army — just as his father did — and that he is tightening his grip on the levers of power. What we may be seeing through this reshuffle is a reconstitution of the North Korean leadership from the old guard who were loyal to Kim’s father to a new guard.

There are questions about how well Kim Jong-un will work over the longer term with a number of senior officials from his father’s generation, most of whom are over 70 years old. Although direct challenges to Kim Jong-un seem unlikely, such a scenario cannot be ruled out. If he fails to prove himself as an able leader, or if he goes too far in ruffling the feathers of the older generation of officials surrounding him (a number of whom are believed to oppose a third-generation hereditary succession), they may attempt to wrest power from him and form a collective leadership. Compared with his father, who had spent 30 years as heir-apparent by the time his own father died in 1994, the new leader is likely to be ill equipped to deal with such problems. In such a situation, Kim Jong-un would almost certainly be kept as a figurehead in an attempt to maintain a degree of legitimacy for the regime. This would be consistent with past trends, where the elite has always kept any in-fighting under wraps and presented a united front to the North Korean people and the world.

North Korea’s foreign policy may now also be subject to a degree of debate in Pyongyang. How to handle the country’s nuclear program is one such issue, although there will be few advocates of denuclearization. Following the failed rocket test in April, there seems little likelihood that the six-party nuclear talks (involving the two Koreas, China, the U.S., Japan and Russia), which began in 2003 but have been stalled since 2008, will be restarted in the near future. The embarrassment of the regime at the failure of the satellite launch has created fears that it may now conduct a nuclear test, concerns that have been heightened by both precedent and recent data from spy satellites. If North Korea later extends an olive branch in one of its familiar policy reversals, it is unlikely to be rebuffed outright, but would nonetheless be treated with due caution.

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Other Global Priorities

This year will also see a number of Pyongyang’s interlocutors undergo their own political transitions, so that the immediate future may not be conducive to major global initiatives relating to North Korea. The issue of North Korea’s nuclear program is not a vote-winner in the U.S., and for the first time since 1994 North Korea went unmentioned in the president’s annual State of the Union address in January. Given that the U.S. is facing many more pressing foreign policy challenges, as well as domestic fiscal and economic difficulties, the North Korean issue will be treated as dormant rather than as an immediate danger unless Kim Jong-un decides to make his mark with fresh provocation.

In Russia and China, political transitions are also taking place in 2012. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has resumed the presidency, and will continue the process of outreach to North Korea seen in the meeting of his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, with Kim Jong-il in August 2011. Russia is keen to pipe gas from Siberia to South Korea via the North, but North Korea has yet to openly endorse the proposal. Recent media reports suggest that Kim Jong-un has accepted the pre-existing agreements on the proposed pipeline, but his efforts (or lack of them) to advance the project will be a touchstone of his economic policy stance more generally.

China will also gain a new leadership. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will hold its 18th Party Congress in the autumn of 2012, when the vice-president, Xi Jinping, and the executive vice-premier, Li Keqiang, are expected to succeed Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, respectively, as the highest ranking members of the CCP politburo standing committee. The annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (China’s legislature) is set to follow in March 2013, at which stage Mr Xi is slated to be elected president and Mr Li to be chosen as premier.

Without argument, China is North Korea’s most important ally. As became clear in its response to the death of Kim Jong-il, when the Chinese government offered assurances of support to both the North Korean people and Kim Jong-un, China appears willing — at least in the interim — to prop up the regime in Pyongyang. It will be unrivaled in its influence in North Korea at least until 2013, when South Korea’s next government is likely to re-engage with the North.

For its part, South Korea held parliamentary elections on April 11th and will follow these with a presidential poll in December. The country’s unpopular conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, whose hardline policy towards the North is widely seen as having led to a significant deterioration in bilateral relations, cannot stand again. The risk that matters could escalate out of control amid rising tensions, despite South Korea’s desire for a quiet year, cannot be dismissed outright.

Following an optimistic start to the new year, when North Korea pledged in February to suspend its nuclear activities, prospects for reform under the new North Korean leadership are difficult to predict. Although Kim Jong-un was educated in Switzerland and can be credited with quickly reopening North Korea’s markets after his father’s death, he is also believed to have been involved in the disastrous re-denomination of North Korea’s currency, the won, in 2009. Whatever his views on economic changes, in the short-term Kim Jong-un is unlikely to pursue reform or move to bring North Korea out of isolation.

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