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Update No: 118 - (26/05/13)

Churn among the top brass

Small squibs
As of May 22, this month on the Korean peninsula has proved quieter than the last two were. ‘For this relief, much thanks’. North Korea has eased its threats and related antics, at least for the time being. Well, almost. As of May 20 it had fired six short-range missiles in three days into what all Koreans call the East Sea (not the Sea of Japan), to rebukes from among others the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. The DPRK cares not a jot for the world body, and even less for Ban who is a former South Korean foreign minister. On May 20 the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) – which despite its name has issued some blood-curdling threats in recent weeks – averred that “"Military the indisputable right of any sovereign nation”; adding that “Viciously taking issue with our military's rocket firing an unacceptable challenge and a wanton provocation.” For once they have a point: UN resolutions do not forbid their testing smaller missiles. Though hardly helpful, these latest squibs do not greatly disturb the peninula’s peace, or what passes for such.

Gone fishin’
Then again, on the other side of the peninsula Pyongyang, or somebody in North Korea – for we can no longer assume, these days, that everything done in or by the DPRK is necessarily deliberate and ordered from on high – was giving a fresh poke in the eye to the big brother which through gritted teeth still continues to sustain this troublesome ingrate. On May 21 the Chinese newsagency Xinhua reported that a PRC fishing boat and its 16-man crew, seized by unidentified North Koreans in the Yellow Sea (West Sea, to Koreans) on May 5, had been released unharmed and were on their way home. A ransom of 600,000 yuan (US$100,000) had been demanded in eight separate telephone calls, but the boat’s owner said that none was paid. He also insisted that his vessel had not crossed the DPRK’s marine border.

At this season the waters west of Korea teem with blue crab, which all three countries – both Koreas and China – jostle to catch. Border violations are common, and clashes not rare. But normally it is their respective navies or coastguards which play cat and mouse with intruders. What makes this incident odd is that it is unclear exactly who the captors were, except that they were definitely North Korean. This echoes a more serious incident a year ago, when three Chinese fishing boats and 29 crew were seized, held in poor conditions, and stripped of all possessions and equipment before being released after a fortnight. In that instance too the precise identity of the culprits is still unclarified, as is whether or not a ransom was paid.

There are two hypotheses, neither of them comforting. If these incidents were authorised by Pyongyang, that suggests new levels of recklessness. Or if perpetrated by rogue elements – which could include Korean People’s Army (KPA) navy units freelancing to make money – it implies that the centre cannot (or will not) fully control lower-level units. Either way, these incidents severely tax Chinese patience; meaning both the authorities, the media and the public.

Unusually, the Chinese press was openly and severely critical of the DPRK over this issue. Online, harsh criticism of North Korean behaviour by ordinary Chinese is now routine; meaning that the authorities in Beijing are no longer censoring the more critical comments. Separately, some major Chinese banks have publicly ended commercial ties with the DPRK, in a gesture both of compliance with UN sanctions and annoyance with Pyongyang. Other smaller regional banks, however, continue to facilitate cross-border trade and finance.

A special envoy
Just as this Update went to press, it was reported that on May 22 Kim Jong-un had sent a special envoy to Beijing. Calling Choe Ryong-hae a senior military figure, as the BBC and others did, is formally true but misleading. Choe is a long-time Kim family crony whose career had been entirely civilian until last year, when in an extraordinary move he was put into uniform – first as a general, now vice-marshal – and made political director of the KPA: manifestly a bid to bring the military under control. He is one of Kim Jong-un’s two closest confidants, along with Jang Song-thaek: vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC), but more importantly the husband of Kim Jong-un’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hui.

Kim Jong-un himself has yet to visit China in his own right, although it is thought that he came with his father at least once. By some accounts Beijing has been resisting such a visit even before the latest vexations, due to a perceived status imbalance. China’s leaders, mature and experienced – though no longer gerontocrats, like some in Pyongyang – and who rose to their positions on merit and by due process (albeit opaque), may well wince at having to embrace this jejune hereditary princeling as their equal. Last year Jang Song-thaek led a delegation to Beijing, and now Choe is there. He will have much to discuss, on many fronts.

No sense on Kaesong
As regards South Korea, the joint venture Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), main focus of last month’s Update, remains closed after the North in April first banned entry to Southern personnel and vehicles, and then withdrew its entire 53,000 workforce. Its pretexts for doing this were specious – there was no ROK provocation of any kind – and its attitude now makes no sense either. It is ignoring Seoul’s repeated requests for working-level talks, and refusing to let Southern factory owners in to check the condition of their property. Its conditions for reopening the complex, such as cancelling upcoming US-ROK war games, breach the basic premise of separating business from politics which has always underpinned this project. Thus the chances of the KIC reopening any time soon, now look slim. Two rumours out of the North reinforce this pessimism: that former KIC workers have been widely dispersed to new jobs, and that at the end of his life Kim Jong-Il decided the zone was undermining the North and told his son and heir Kim Jong-un to find a way to close it. It looks as if he has done so.

Yet another new defence minister
May’s main event arose not in foreign affairs but domestic politics. On May 13 it emerged that North Korea has changed its defence minister for the third time since April 2012. As so often, this emerged in passing, rather than being announced as such. Jang Jong-nam, a nearly unknown general – hitherto he had served as field commander of the First Army Corps – was named as Minister of People’s Armed Forces (MPAF), in a report on a concert attended by Kim Jong-un. Moreover, he was ranked as high as fourth among those present. Kim was first, of course, followed by Choe Ryong-hae and Jang Song-thaek.

Four defence ministers in barely a year is an extraordinary rate of attrition. It never used to be like this, but the rise of Kim Jong-un has clearly caused much churn in the military. The last MPAF to serve a normal term (2009-12) was Kim Yong-chun, who before that had been a very long-serving chief of general staff (CGS) from 1995 to 2007. (Let us call him YC; as so often in Korea, this story has too many Kims. None of these military ones are related.)

In April last year, when Kim Jong-un was formally installed in charge of the Party and state, YC gave way to Kim Jong-gak, another senior vice-marshal (hereafter JG). He lasted only seven months; in November he was replaced by Kim Kyok-sik (KS). The latter is seen in Seoul as a hardliner, said to be responsible for the shelling of the South’s Yeonpyeong island (which lies close to the DPRK’s west coast) in November 2010; four people were killed.

Now KS in turn is down, and maybe out; his last mention in the DPRK media was on May 3. The down/out distinction is important. Despite their demotions both YC and JG continued to be seen, at least until recently. JG was further demoted on April 1, when he was “recalled” from the National Defence Commission (NDC: the highest executive body, outranking the Cabinet). So was another senior military figure, General Ri Myong-su, whose career is also on the slide. Ri was Minister of People’s Security (in charge of the police) from 2011 until this February. Having risen to the topmost echelons only a year ago, when he joined both the Politburo and Central Military Commission (CMC) of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) as well as the NDC, he lost all these posts in the back-to-back Central Committee and Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA, ‘parliament’) sessions on March 31 and April 1.
(We discussed other proceedings at these two important meetings in last month’s Update.)

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) described both JG and Ri’s coming off the NDC as being “due to the transfer to other jobs” – though it did not say what those were. But the plot thickens, for one of those named to fill the new vacancies on the NDC was none other than Kim Kyok-sik. So either KS is indeed down but not out, or he has been moved sideways, or he has undergone an extremely rapid promotion and demotion. This all suggests considerable turmoil and in-fighting: within the KPA’s upper ranks, and with the Party.

Two other former top brass are not only down but also definitely out. The most striking case is vice-marshal Ri Yong-ho, who after a rapid rise to the top – he was little known when he was appointed as CGS in February 2009– was for a time the most powerful man in the KPA. In September 2010 when Kim Jong-un was finally unveiled as his father Kim Jong-il’s successor, Ri was the uniformed figure who stood (on the podium) and sat (for the official Central Committee photograph) actually between the two Kims; and who shared the newly created position of CMC vice-chairman with Kim Jong-un, the latter’s first post.

Clearly at that point Ri YH – we may have to start initialising all these Ris as well; usually rendered as Lee in South Korea, but pronounced there as Yi without the R, this is the second most common Korean surname after Kim – was not only the top man in the military but also the key KPA figure promoting the successor. But not for long. Maybe YH was closer to Kim Jong-il than to his son. At all events, as we reported at the time, last July he was suddenly retired, supposedly on health grounds: an unconvincing pretext since he showed no signs of illness. By some accounts YH did not go quietly; the rumour in Seoul is of a shoot-out, with not a few fatalities; and also that he is detained at an east coast spa, since Kim Jong-un fears unrest in the KPA if he were to be eliminated completely. Also out, whereabouts unknown, is U Tong-chuk, who used to run state security and who in December 2011 was one of the four military figures who flanked Kim Jong-il’s hearse on the left side. All four of these – the others were YC, JG and YH – are now down or out. By contrast, all four civilians who walked to the right of the catafalque remain alive and well and in high positions.

Who’s in charge?
Finally, if still speculatively, all these military ups and downs might suggest a further reason, or possibly two, for North Korea’s recent antics on the global stage. Kim Jong-un may think (but is he right?) that militant posturing is the way to impress the KPA. Alternatively, a regime racked by dissent may find lurid threats convenient for keeping the world at bay and thus avoiding risky dialogue, if there is in fact no consensus in Pyongyang at this point on anything: who is in charge, what to do in policy terms, and how to handle friends or foes.

The coming months may clarify such matters. Or, this being the DPRK… they may not.


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