Recent changes in Kim Jong Un’s high command

Prior to the Singapore Summit, Kim Jong Un switched his top military leaders as part of the preliminary phase of mothballing the DPRK’s WMD program.

The changes in the high command made in the past two months involve the heads of the three institutions which comprise a military and political command and control over the Korean People’s Army (KPA) conventional and special operations forces, as well as the rear service and administrative components which support them. These institutions include the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces (the DPRK’s equivalent of a defense minister), the Chief of the KPA General Staff Department (and by extension the 1st Vice Chief of the General Staff and Director of the Operations Bureau) and the director of the KPA General Political Bureau. These are the top three positions in the KPA high command.

All three of the appointees are Kim Jong Un loyalists who have held high office since 2012. They will contribute to and implement his policies, including external overtures to China and the ROK as well as phased denuclearization, with little to no resistance. None has any long-standing patronage ties, and can be counted on not to feather their nests through malfeasance or misappropriation of resources. This is not to suggest that their predecessors were corrupt or disloyal; rather, the new appointments are an insurance policy based on their previous positions and contributions to the regime and their close links to Kim Jong Un and other members of the core leadership. In this respect, the Suryong (supreme leader) is leaving nothing to chance.

[38 North]

The politics of Kim Jong Un’s secret trip to China

A surprise visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to China may indicate Pyongyang’s need for support from its closest ally ahead of upcoming summits with South Korea and the US. Observers say it would be highly unusual for Kim to meet US President Donald Trump without seeing Chinese President Xi Jinping first. China is North Korea’s number one trading and economic partner, and is Pyongyang’s only major military ally.

Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are due to meet next month, and a proposed meeting with Trump is due to take place by May.

Since North and South Korea reopened diplomatic ties in February, Pyongyang has been pushing for a Korean solution to the ongoing crisis on the peninsula, which analysts say is a way of driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

But recent moves have also left China, North Korea’s most important ally, somewhat marginalized.

The two countries have been allies since the Korean War, when Mao Zedong sent troops to support Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, and still maintain a mutual defense treaty, under which they pledge to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” in the event of war or foreign attack.

Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 however, the relationship has become increasingly strained. Kim purged several key officials with close ties to Beijing, including his uncle, Jang Song Thaek. He also angered China by pursuing missile and nuclear testing against Beijing’s stated goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

“The North Korean Chinese relationship has not been very good in recent years, particularly over China’s acceptance of international sanctions and degree of implementing them,” said James Hoare, an associate fellow at Chatham House and former UK diplomat in North Korea. “These will be subjects the North Koreans are keen to talk about.”

“China would like to be seen as the ultimate peacemaker in the region,” said Adam Cathcart, an expert on Sino-Korean relations at the University of Leeds.

Tong Zhao, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, adds, “A stable and positive relationship with China would prevent the US from launching a military strike.”

[CNN]

Kim Jong-un promotes sister to North Korean politburo

Kim Yo-jong, the youngest daughter of late leader Kim Jong-il, will be replacing her aunt as a member of the Workers Party’s Politburo.

Kim Yo-jong (30), who has frequently appeared alongside her brother in public and is thought to have been responsible for his public image, was already influential as vice-director of the propaganda and agitation department.  She was referred to as a senior party official three years ago.

Her promotion was announced by Mr Kim at a party meeting on Saturday as part of a reshuffle involving dozens of other top officials.

The BBC’s Danny Savage says the move to elevate Ms Kim will be seen as further evidence of the Kim family’s iron grip on North Korea.

When Ms Kim was given a key post at the country’s rare ruling party congress last year, it was widely expected that she would take up an important role in the country’s core leadership.

[BBC]

Kim Jong Un promotes his sister to center of power

In a meeting of the powerful Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party on Saturday, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un made his sister, Kim Yo Jong, an alternate member of the politburo — the top decision-making body over which Kim Jong Un presides.

Alongside Kim Jong Un himself, the promotion makes Kim Yo Jong the only other millennial member of the influential body. Her new position indicates the 28-year-old has become a replacement for Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, who had been a key decision maker when former leader Kim Jong Il was alive.

“It is a further consolidation of the Kim family’s power,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North website.

In January, the U.S. Treasury blacklisted Kim Yo Jong along with other North Korean officials over “severe human rights abuses”.

North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, who named Donald Trump “President Evil” in a bombastic speech to the U.N. General Assembly last month, was also promoted to full vote-carrying member of the politburo.

“Ri can now be safely identified as one of North Korea’s top policy makers,” said Madden. “Even if he has informal or off the record meetings, Ri’s interlocutors can be assured that whatever proposals they proffer will be taken directly to the top,” he said.

[Reuters]

North Korean insider now living in Virginia suggests top-level talks

In 2014, Ri Jong Ho grew increasingly disillusioned after Kim Jong Un suddenly denounced his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, as a “traitor for all ages” and had him executed at the end of 2013.

For three decades, Ri worked in Office 39, the Workers’ Party operation responsible for raising money for the Kim family. The office has long been associated with both legal trade and illicit activity, including counterfeiting dollars and drug smuggling. The 59-year-old and his family now live in Northern Virginia, having defected to South Korea at the end of 2014, and moved to the United States last year.

Jang had been leading economic cooperation efforts with China, and dozens of people who worked for him were also purged at the time, Ri said. He worried that his family would be next. They escaped to South Korea.

The former money man advocates an approach that combines Trump’s “maximum pressure” with another idea that the president has at least flirted with: talks.

“I think there should be top-level talks between the U.S. and North Korea, so that they can both work together to solve the problem,” Ri said.

While there is a great deal of skepticism in Washington about negotiations, that shouldn’t stop the current administration from trying, Ri said: “Like they say in politics, yesterday’s enemy can be today’s friend.”

[Washington Post]

CIA Director met high-level North Korean defector Thae Yong Ho

CIA Director Mike Pompeo discussed the potential for fomenting an insurrection against the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea with a high-level defector, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The meeting between Pompeo and Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest-ranking North Korean officials to defect to South Korea, took place during the CIA director’s visit to South Korea earlier this month. Thae worked as a senior diplomat in the North Korean embassy in London and defected in the summer of 2016.

During the session with Thae, Pompeo discussed whether conditions inside North Korea were ripe for an uprising against Kim by the military, security, or political officials, according to intelligence officials familiar with the meeting. Thae responded that he believed conditions within North Korea were conducive to such an insurrection.

In January, Thae, the defector, told reporters in Seoul the Kim regime is “crumbling” and efforts to control outside information from penetrating the closed system were failing due to official corruption and growing discontent.

Thae advocates using information to break the North Korean regime’s control of outside news to help ordinary citizens overthrow the regime.

Bruce Bechtol, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, said Kim Jong Un’s hold on power is weaker than that of his father, Kim Jong Il, who in turn did not have the same grip on power his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. “Because of Kim’s weaker hold on power than his predecessors, and the powerful internal security services, it is most likely that any insurrection is going to come from members of the elite—not from the bottom up,” he said.

[Washington Free Beacon]

How Kim Jong Un has tightened his grip on power

Since succeeding his father in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has impressed and confounded with his rise from political novice to adept operator.

He has done a remarkable job of consolidating his power and remodeling the country in his own image, says Choi Jong-kun, associate professor at Yonsei University’s Department of Political Science and International Studies in South Korea. “He has reformed the economy far greater than his father, and hugely advanced the country’s nuclear and missile capabilities,” Choi tells CNN

Nick Bisley, executive director at La Trobe University in Melbourne, says security in the form of the nuclear program is a prerequisite to any serious attempt at North Korean economic reform. “Only when they feel confident that they have their nuclear weapons and the security they have with that will we see economic reform,” he says. “The most optimistic (outcome) is that it follows the China model — once secure it follows a China-style economic reform but (even in that case) we won’t see any political reform.”

Consolidating his power has been key to Kim’s rise, and much of this has been done in a brutal, bloody manner. One report from South Korean think tank, the Institute for National Security Strategy, claims he has ordered the executions of at least 340 people since he came to power in 2011 — 140 of whom were senior officers in the country’s government, military and ruling Korean Worker’s Party.

Of all the killings, few have the notoriety of his execution of his uncle by marriage, Jang Song Thaek in 2013. His abrupt removal was a sign Kim was removing the last vestiges of the old guard. With state media declaring Jang a “traitor for all ages,” Kim made sure there was no dissent to the decision.

The reported execution of five deputy minister-level officials in February of this year, who were working under disgraced state security chief Kim Won Hong, suggests that the purges may be still ongoing.

[CNN]

UN urged to bring North Korea before International Criminal Court

A veteran investigator urged the United Nations to appoint an international legal expert to prepare judicial proceedings against North Korea’s leadership for documented crimes against humanity.

Marzuki Darusman, a former Indonesian attorney-general who served on the U.N. commission of inquiry on North Korea, said the U.N. Human Rights Council must pursue North Korean accountability during its current session. His call came amid an international furore over the murder of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

A U.N. commission of inquiry, in a 2014 report issued after it conducted interviews and public hearings with defectors, recommended North Korea be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC).The landmark 2014 report, rejected by Pyongyang, said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might be personally responsible for crimes against humanity.

“If North Korea is able to do this to the older brother of Kim, to the uncle of Kim (Jang Song Thaek executed in 2013), and all the elite purging left and right, can you imagine what life might be like if you are a prisoner in a North Korean prison camp, with over 100,000 of them?” Lee Jung-Hoon, South Korean ambassador for North Korean human rights, said.

Evidence recorded over the past decade or more by U.N. investigators should be given to a new U.N. mechanism for prosecution, Darusman said, adding: “Let us prevail in the end-game.”

[Reuters]

Diplomat defector compares North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to Roman emperor Nero

The senior North Korea diplomat who defected to the South from Pyongyang’s embassy in London described Kim Jong Un as a “21st century Nero” in a recent interview.

In an interview with South Korean newspaper Kukmin Ilbo, Thae Yong-ho said Kim Jong Un is a despot who cannot tolerate those who disagree with him.

Thae then provided an anecdote about Pyongyang Folklore Park, which he ordered destroyed after assassinating his uncle Jang Sung Taek, who managed the park.

“After [Kim Jong Un] killed Jang Song Taek, he said he kept seeing Jang’s face each time he passed the areas surrounding the folklore park and recruited military units to have the park destroyed.”

Thae compared Kim Jong Un to the Roman emperor Nero, who according to historical records began a fire in Rome to make room for a new palatial complex.

Thae said Kim Jong Un lacks trust in others and his existence was completely unknown to most North Koreans until 2009. The former diplomat also said Kim is not well rooted in North Korean society because he grew up in Switzerland, a background that amplifies his distrust of people in the regime, according to the report.

[UPI]

South Korean Intelligence concludes North Korean government killed Kim Jong Nam

South Korean intelligence officials announced that officials from North Korea’s secret police and Foreign Ministry were involved in the killing of the estranged half brother of the country’s leader.

Speaking in a closed-door parliamentary hearing, Lee Byung-ho, the director of the National Intelligence Service, said that four of the eight North Koreans identified as suspects by the Malaysian authorities were agents from North Korea’s Ministry of State Security, the country’s secret police.

Mr. Lee said that two other suspects worked for the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and another was affiliated with Air Koryo, the North’s state-run airline company.

Mr. Lee, the South Korean intelligence chief, was quoted by the lawmakers as saying that the eight North Koreans, working as two four-member teams, converged in Kuala Lumpur to carry out the Feb. 13 assassination. Malaysian authorities have said that the North Koreans had hired and trained two women, one from Indonesia, the other from Vietnam, to attack Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Hyon Kwang-song, a senior diplomat at the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and three other North Koreans worked as a support team, Mr. Lee told the lawmakers. Mr. Hyon and the Air Koryo employee, Kim Uk-il, remain at the embassy in Malaysia.

[New York Times]