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Update No: 089 - (30/09/10)

North Korea: Son rise, at last
At long last the wait is over. They came; they saw. They voted – in favour, of course. And then they all went home again. Nothing changed, really. No pressing problems were solved, or even tackled. But one crucial name is now out in the open, as is his photograph.

Even by its own eccentric standards, North Korea is erratic when it comes to due process. The nominally ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) is supposed to hold a full Congress every five years. In fact there has been none since the Sixth Congress in 1980, when Kim Il-sung first revealed his son and heir Kim Jong-il in public.

Due process: who cares?
Kim Jong-il took this procedural insouciance even further. Until the past week, it is not clear if the WPK Central Committee (CC) had even met since he succeeded his father in 1994. Why bother to disguise absolute power with these pretended trappings of consultation?

A micro-manager when his health allows, the dear leader sits spider-like at the centre of a vast web of state, Party and military bodies, all reporting ultimately only to him. Or a bicycle wheel is a better analogy, since lateral contacts between agencies are strictly discouraged. On a day-to-day basis Kim rules through a kitchen cabinet of cronies, whose formal rank may belie their true power; his brother-in-law Jang Song-taek long being the prime example.

Yet even in Pyongyang there comes a time when naked absolutism does not quite cut it. Tiresomely, you have to go through the motions. If North Korea were an actual rather than merely an aspirant monarchy, King Jong-il could simply anoint Prince Jong-eun as his heir – and that would be that. No need to go to the trouble of mass meetings to rubber-stamp this.

The DPRK may be neither democratic nor popular nor a republic, but it has not yet wholly sloughed off its communist origins. Moreover, issues of substance as well as of form are at stake. Successions were ever the Achilles’ heel of dictatorships. Manoeuvring an unknown and untried 20-something, with no known qualifications except kinship, to be in line for the top job is no easy task. Behind the scenes – for North Korea always tries to keep real politics private, reserving the public sphere for well-choreographed theatrical displays of unanimity – the machinations must have been considerable, and the knives were out.

The mask slips
The past year has seen the mask slip now and then, with various oddities. Why for instance did the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) hold a rare second meeting in June, less than two months after its usual session in April, to reshuffle the Cabinet? Or was old age, as cited, the real reason for the National Defence Commission (NDC) to suddenly dismiss ex-defence minister Kim Il-chol – already demoted to vice-minister a year earlier – in May? Kim is 80, but so are many others in this gerontocracy: the average age of the new Politburo, almost all of whom are very familiar faces rather than new blood, is 77.

The questions continue. Was the car crash that killed key party figure Ri Je-gang in the small hours of June 3, on his way home from a night out with Kim Jong-il, really an accident; or was Ri a rival of Jang Song-thaek’s, who had to be eliminated before the SPA session? Or more recently, why did Kim Jong-il suddenly scurry off to China again in late August: his second visit in four months? And why was a major WPK conference, announced in June as upcoming in “early September”, not in fact held until September 28?

On the former, Kim is thought to have sought and secured China’s support – political, and perhaps material too in the form of much-needed aid – for his son Jong-eun’s succession. As to the delay, there are three main hypotheses. Severe floods in the northern DPRK may have prevented some delegates reaching Pyongyang; or Kim Jong-il’s health might have suffered a relapse; or the last embers of opposition to Jong-un may have needed to be stamped out so the big day could run smoothly – as, in the event, it duly did (at least to the outside eye).

Or perhaps Kim Jong-il just likes to keep the world guessing. He certainly achieved that, as the first half of September passed with preparations for the meeting in Pyongyang still in full swing – but no sign of the real thing. Not until September 21 was it announced that the long-awaited WPK delegates’ conference would now be held on September 28. Gatherings of this kind are even rarer than WPK Congresses. This would be the first since 1966, and that one too had been devoted to the delicate matter of political succession.

Back in those days, almost half a century ago, a few foolhardy comrades still imagined they had a right to think, and even speak. Some were aghast when North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung turned his already despotic rule into a dynasty: by appointing his brother, Kim Yong-ju, as his successor. These opponents were duly purged, and the Kim Family Regime took hold. Yong-ju, thought to be still alive at 90, was later outmanoeuvred by his nephew Kim Jong-il.

But first, to church
Fast forward 44 years, and history’s onward march has progressed further: from communism to despotism, from one-man tyranny to dynasticism, and from secularism to a death cult with the living reduced to cyphers. On Sunday September 26 DPRK media pictured hundreds of chaps – hardly a woman in sight – in suits and with suitcases, pouring out of Pyongyang station as they arrived for the meeting. But first things first. Monday was for worship: they all visited “the sacred temple of Juche.” Thus did the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) describe Kumsusan Memorial Palace: where Kim Il-sung lived and worked, and where now his embalmed corpse – in death he remains “eternal President” – keeps a glass eye on things.

Available to tourists, but strictly not to be photographed, this mausoleum visit is a strange experience even by North Korean standards. Conveyed on a long travelator – never subject to power cuts, unlike much else in Pyongyang – visitors are not only X-rayed but sprayed with wind jets, lest any impurity besmirch the sacred body. Entering the inner sanctum, as you pass the Great Leader you must bow in three prescribed places. North Korean women are allowed, or perhaps instructed, to sob quietly; men may wipe a tear from their eye.

And so to business. As even the Chinese newsagency Xinhua noted, North Korea did not say where exactly the big Party meeting was held. It had two functions: primarily of course to enshrine Kim Jong-eun’s succession, but also to put the WPK’s top organs on a more regular footing. For the first time in years full lists were published of the Central Committee and the Politburo, including brief biographies of the latter. Glasnost this is not, but a step forward.

Playing soldiers
As widely predicted, for the first time Kim Jong-eun’s name and image have now appeared in public. This was done in a low-key way: from all appearances, he was hardly the star of the show. But he has gained three formal positions. First, on the eve of the meeting he was one of six persons named as four-star generals. Like him, three of these have no known military experience, including his aunt Kim Kyong-hui, a light industry expert. She also becomes a full Politburo member, as well as the Korean People’s Army (KPA)’s sole female “general.”

One can only wonder what real soldiers make of this. The fact that a Party meeting must dish out military ranks to establish credibility, shows where the real clout lies these days. Yet such ludicrous appointments might equally be taken as insulting. What soldierly respect could a genuine 3-star KPA general really feel for Kim Jong-eun or Kim Kyong-hui? – let alone other new generals such as Kim Jong-il’s long-time crony the twice-disgraced Choe Ryong-hae, of whom ribald tales are told; see Bradley Martin’s recent article in Asia Times Online.

A day after being promoted general, Kim Jong-eun gained two further posts. He was listed among over 100 members of the new WPK Central Committee. More importantly, he was named as joint vice-chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission. The CMC is the most powerful body in Pyongyang. It shadows and directs the National Defence Commission (NDC): itself the highest executive organ of state, outranking the civilian cabinet.

Pictured at last
Kim Jong-eun was not otherwise singled out in the meeting itself, but a picture published after the event– including on the front page of Rodong Shinmun, the WPK daily – confirmed Pyongyang’s new hierarchy. So little-known is North Korea’s dauphin that this is in fact the first confirmed image of him as an adult.

As a group photograph, individuals are somewhat blurry; but it is the positioning that counts. Kim Jong-eun stands out, being twice as young as anyone else. While hundreds stand, he is seated in the front row (of course), two places to the right of his father. Between them is the uniformed figure of Chief of the General Staff Ri Yong-ho, freshly promoted vice-marshal and Jong-eun’s co-vice-chair on the CMC. Also newly appointed to the WPK’s five-strong Politburo Presidium, Ri is clearly the man to watch in the KPA now. He has leapfrogged over several better-known military names, while at age 67 he is younger than most. (He is not to be confused with another Ri Yong-ho, newly promoted as a vice foreign minister.)

But back to Kim Jong-eun. Tieless like his father to show he is special, in a dark Mao-type jacket which nods at a military look, the heir-apparent hardly appears happy. He has filled out since his teenage years in Switzerland, having presumably given up the basketball that was his passion then. In looks he resembles the young Kim Il-sung, his grandfather, more than his dad. That will do him no harm. Despite being the ultimate begetter of his realm’s multiple miseries, the Great Leader remain surprisingly fondly remembered in North Korea.

First family
As already noted, Kim Jong-il’s keeping power in the family extends beyond his son. His sister Kim Kyong-hui – invisible for a decade before her sudden re-emergence in June 2009 watching a Russian opera with her brother, since when they have been inseparable – is now both a four-star general and a full Politburo member; although she, and she alone, is missing from KCNA’s potted biographies of the latter. As such she formally outranks her husband Jang Song-taek, nominally a mere alternate Politburo member but in practice accumulating ever more formal and substantive powers. Joining the NDC last year as a rare civilian, Jang was promoted in June to vice-chairman. Now he is on the CMC too. His role as eminence grise even comes across in photographs. The aforementioned group shot has him standing looking watchfully over Kim Jong-il’s shoulder; while in the WPK meeting, seated in the back row of the platform party, he is similarly placed vis-à-vis Kim Yong-nam, the DPRK’s long-serving titular head of state.

As widely canvassed, if Kim Jong-il should die suddenly the burden of regency would surely fall upon Jang Song-taek. But neither this, nor the seemingly successful if woefully overdue staging of North Korea’s first national Party meeting in three decades, guarantees stability when the time of reckoning finally comes. Quite apart from Jong-eun’s two older brothers, both passed over in his favour, there may well be rivalries or mistrust among those who for now, maintain a pretence of unity. While we know all too little of the detail – suggestions by a former Japanese defence minister that Kim Kyong-hui is North Korea’s Lady Macbeth appear fanciful – in such a situation power struggles are the rule rather than the exception.

We don’t do policy
And what of policy? On this the WPK meeting was lamentably silent. Ostrich-like, North Korea proceeds as if the only thing that matters is ‘Who’ – rather than ‘What’, or ‘How’.

The few hints were, as often, contradictory. Anyone still hopeful that fresh life may yet be breathed into the surely moribund nuclear Six Party Talks (6PT), suspended since 2008, may take heart from the promotion just before the WPK congress of Kim Kye-gwan, the DPRK’s main nuclear negotiator, to be first vice foreign minister. He replaces the long-serving Kang Sok-ju, Kim Jong-il’s cousin, who joins the Politburo and moves to two new posts: as first vice president of the Supreme Court, and also one of at least eight vice-premiers. Kim Kye-gwan’s promotion belies suggestions that he had been purged, either for the 6PT’s perceived failure or undue closeness to his then US counterpart, Christopher Hill. On the other hand, on September 29 yet another DPRK vice foreign minister, Pak Kil-yon, told the UN General Assembly that “as long as US nuclear aircraft carriers sail around the seas of our country, our nuclear deterrent can never be abandoned, but should be strengthened further.”

What of economic reform? The return of ex-premier Pak Pong-ju, a known reformer sacked in 2007, as an alternate CC member is hopeful. So is Kim Jong-il’s recent praise of China’s development; though he always says this when he goes there, but nothing ever comes of it once he gets home. Yet on September 18 an editorial in Rodong Sinmun uncompromisingly reasserted the old, failed gospel of self-reliance: “It is the trend of economic development to develop one's own materials and concentrate on using them … We can live well enough with the development of our inexhaustible materials for generations and prepare enough funds for the construction of an economically strong state … Living by relying on foreign powers is a selfish way to be; being rich only for that one generation … There is no bigger sin than handing over a lame economy begging from others to the next generation.”

Yet North Korea’s is already a mendicant economy. The tragic irony of Juche is that seeking self-reliance only produces the opposite: reducing a once proud industrial state to beggary. If whoever is in charge in Pyongyang now or in the future does not grasp this, there is no hope.

More broadly, the WPK meeting is only a first step. Kim Jong-eun now has formal positions and a public presence. It remains to be seen whether and how he will wield real power.

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