More purging of the Old Guard anticipated in North Korea

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As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wraps up his first year in power, marked by the purging of several old guard elites, he may replace the country’s No. 2 leader, Kim Yong-nam, and some other top officials next year, according to a North Korea expert, Alexandre Mansourov, a specialist in Northeast Asian security, who works as a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

“Who replaces Kim Yong-nam may tell us about the future direction of the restructuring of the political system,” said.  (He added Kim Yong-nam will likely “honorably retire,” rather than being purged.)

Mansourov raised four possible scenarios for the replacement of Kim Yong-nam as ceremonial head of state:

  • Kim Jong-un could assume the position himself;
  • choose Jang Song-thaek, his uncle, who is apparently at the center of the governing group;
  • select another figure like Kang Sok-ju, a longtime confidant to late leader Kim Jong-il on foreign affairs,
  • or appoint some dark horse.

The first case would add to speculation that the young leader is in full control of the regime, Mansourov said.

“The appointment of Jang Song-thaek as the nominal head of state will be an indicator of Jang’s rising political and foreign policy influences and continued efforts to secure his grip on power beyond his wife, Kim Kyong-hui,” the sister of Kim Jong-il, he added.

Among the so-called “Gang of Seven,” who walked alongside the hearse carrying Kim Jong-il’s body a year ago, four have been dismissed, with two others also sidelined, he pointed out.

Jang Song-thaek is the only figure who remains in power.

“As for his uncle Jang, I believe the young marshal will use him for as long as he has to, but then he will surely cut him off, probably without much regret, just like his father purged his own uncle Kim Yong-ju when Kim Jong-il deemed him as a threat to his own power bid in the mid-1970s,” Mansourov said.

Yonhap News

South Korea’s new trustpolitik with North Korea

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After a tight race, South Korean voters last week picked Park Geun-hye of the establishment Saenuri Party as their next President.

Park’s foremost challenge when she takes office in February will be North Korea. The outgoing government of President Lee Myung-bak, a no-nonsense former corporate CEO, reversed 10 years of so-called sunshine policy — a conciliatory approach to Pyongyang that saw two summits, the South’s investments in the North and reunions of family members separated by the Korean War. Lee adopted a stern approach, cutting off dialogue and humanitarian aid over Pyongyang’s unwillingness to drop its nuclear-weapons program.

When Pyongyang shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, Lee ordered the South Korean military to prepare for retaliatory strikes on the North’s missile bases in the event of further provocation. He also canceled inter-Korean Red Cross talks that were scheduled to occur two days after the shelling.

This past year, Pyongyang’s failed long-range rocket launch in April and a successful launch earlier this month further strained relations between the two Koreas. “There’s a sense that something has to give,” says Hahm Chai-bong, head of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Park looks as if she will be doing the giving. Despite Pyongyang’s persistent recalcitrance, Park believes that improving bilateral relations will help persuade North Korea to curtail its nuclear program as well as set the two Koreas on a path of reunification — the “100% completion of Korea,” as she has termed it. Her confidence-building measures — she calls them “trustpolitik” — include the renewal of humanitarian aid to the North and re-establishing social and cultural exchanges.

TIME

No changes in China policy on North Korea

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Communist Party chief Xi Jinping has surprised many with his actions domestically but few are betting on any drastic changes from him in China’s policy on and support for its ally North Korea. Observers say Xi will opt for the status quo.

After North Korea’s rocket launch, which fired a weather satellite into space on December 12, China’s foreign ministry expressed “regret” at the development. Meanwhile China’s diplomats have opposed the UN’s attempts to punish its ally with more sanctions.

North Korea is the only country China has inked a security treaty with – in 1961 – which compels them to provide military aid if either party comes under attack.

Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang said Beijing wants to keep Pyongyang as one of its few true friends, especially after seeing its south-western neighbor Myanmar leaning further away from China with its democratic reforms since 2010.

Analyst Scott Harold of the US-based think-tank Rand Corporation cited a belief in Communist China that liberalization of another Communist country would “constitute a loss for Beijing”.

There is also a growing belief among some that Beijing is being held ransom – perhaps unwittingly – by Pyongyang.

Japan’s former defense minister Yuriko Koike said the North’s latest action showed its belief that “a more robust vision of national defense in Japan and South Korea would antagonize China, which, isolated in East Asia, will then be more likely to maintain its support for the Kim regime.

“Thus, the missile launch can be viewed as an indication of how threatened the Kim dynasty feels – the regime appears to believe that it must blackmail its closest ally in order to maintain its support,” wrote Koike in a Project Syndicate article last Friday.

Kim Jong-un calls for more powerful missiles

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Friday called on scientists to develop more powerful rockets, the North’s KCNA news agency reported.

“You should develop and launch a variety of working satellites… and carrier rockets of bigger capacity,” Kim was quoted as saying at a banquet in Pyongyang honoring the scientists who built the rocket launched on Dec. 12.

Kim added that the successful launch of the rocket “was the biggest present we dedicated to our great leader Kim Jong-il and a product of painstaking efforts and heroic struggle of our people and Workers Party.”

But the new leader admitted failing to achieve his goal of turning North Korea into a “powerful and prosperous nation” this year, which marks the centenary of nation founder Kim Il-sung’s birth. “We will work even harder to fly the red flag of a powerful and prosperous nation atop the mountain of victory as soon as possible,” he said.

He urged the scientists to do their best to bring that day closer, evidently trying to associate progress in missile development with the “prosperity and happiness” of the people.

Afterwards Kim and his wife Ri Sol-ju personally saw off the scientists, technicians and workers of the missile development program as they returned to their quarters, KCNA reported.

Cautious South Korea appears open to dialogue with North

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Emerging from victory, Park Geun-hye who will become the next, and the first woman, president of South Korea. Concerning North Korea, Park has said she will try to find a middle ground between the two much-criticized approaches of previous presidents — Roh Moo-hyun, who showered North Korea with unconditional aid, and the outgoing Lee Myung-bak, who treated the North as an adversary.

Pyongyang managed to exploit both approaches, continuing with its weapons program — and conducting its first nuclear test — during a long period of South-led engagement, and later turning more violent, launching two fatal attacks on the South, when that engagement was yanked away.

Park has stressed that she will use “robust deterrence” to counter the North Korean military threat. But she says she is also open to meeting with 29-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, “if it helps in moving forward North-South relations.”

Three in five Koreans, according to a recent government poll, believe that Lee took too hard a line against the North during his soon-to-end five-year term. He ended almost all humanitarian aid and economic projects, saying everything would be restored if the North gave up its weapons. He also talked often about the “inevitability” of unification, hinting that the North was unstable and soon to collapse.

Lee had hoped his stance would pressure the North, turning it desperate and compliant. Instead, the North drastically increased its ties with China and continued with its nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches, the latest coming earlier this month.

Park’s approach is more dovish than Lee’s but still much more stern than the “Sunshine Policy” — introduced by Kim Dae-jung in 1998 and continued by Roh — that liberal candidate Moon Jae-in promised to reinstate. No matter the North’s behavior, Park says, she will resume political dialogue and provide some sort of humanitarian aid. She also plans to restore some small-scale economic projects and cultural exchanges, although she has stayed vague about specifics.

But for the South to provide anything more significant, Park says, the North must begin to dismantle its nuclear weapons — something it has vowed will never happen.

North Korea policy of new South Korean President Park Geun-hye

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Conservative candidate Park Geun-hye,  the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee, claimed victory Wednesday in South Korea’s presidential election, a result that will make her the country’s first woman president. Park will assume office in February 2013, in a country grappling with income inequality, angst over education and employment prospects for its youth, and strained relations with North Korea.

Polls showed that North-South relations ranked fifth in the most salient issues to the Korean public, falling far behind job creation, economic issues and education.

Less than 10% prioritized relations with Pyongyang, according to polls. “Threat perception overall toward North Korea has somewhat waned,” said Jong Kun Choi, an associate professor of political sciences and international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

After the announcement of North Korea’s missile launch, about half of the respondents in a poll said they expected the rocket to have no effect in the election. “It used to be the case that a major blow from North Korea would critically affect South Korea’s election. However, this may not have a major impact as it used to be, because first of all, we are so used to it,” Choi said.

Steve Chung, who has examined the North Korean factor in South Korean presidential elections in the last two decades, said he observed that the regime is “less and less important” in this election compared with previous ones. “This year, the inter-Korea atmosphere is not as strong,” said Chung, a PhD candidate in the department of Korean studies at the university of Sydney.

South Koreans have become used to provocation from their neighbor, said Choi. “It’s been going on for the last 20 years, despite so many sporadic skirmishes, virtually nothing has happened,” he said.

Park’s policy of engaging with North Korea may not differ much from Lee’s, said Christopher Green, manager of international affairs for DailyNK, which covers North Korea. Even if Seoul was to implement a policy of unrestricted aid for North Korea, there is little guarantee that the regime would respond.

 

North Korea displays Kim Jong Il a year after his death

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North Korea unveiled the embalmed body of Kim Jong Il, still in his trademark khaki jumpsuit, on the anniversary of his death as mourning mixed with pride over a recent satellite launch that was a long-held goal of the late authoritarian leader.

In the Kumsusan mausoleum, a cavernous former presidential palace, Kim Jong Il was presented lying beneath a red blanket, a spotlight shining on his face in a room suffused in red. Wails echoed through the chilly hall as a group of North Korean women sobbed into the sashes of their traditional Korean dresses as they bowed before his body.

North Korea also unveiled Kim’s yacht and his armored train carriage, where he is said to have died. Among the personal belongings featured in the mausoleum are the parka, sunglasses and pointy platform shoes he famously wore in the last decades of his life. A MacBook Pro lay open on his desk.

At a memorial service on Sunday, North Korea’s top leadership not only eulogized Kim Jong Il, but also praised his son. Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of North Korea’s parliament, called the recent rocket launch a “shining victory” and an emblem of the promise that lies ahead with Kim Jong Un in power.

Recent high-profile appointments made by Kim Jong Un

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Last July, Kim Jong Un dismissed military chief Ri Yong Ho, who was seen as one of his key mentors, and named little-known vice marshal Hyon Yong Chol as his new General Staff chief.

In April, Kim reshuffled top Workers’ Party posts by taking on top party posts held by his father and giving other high-level posts to close associates. In recent months, North Korea has also reshuffled top Cabinet members such as the ministers of sports, electronics industry and agriculture, according to Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency.

More recently, North Korea replaced its defense minister with a hard-line military commander believed responsible for deadly attacks on South Korea in 2010. Diplomats in Pyongyang told the Associated Press that they were informed that Kim Jong Gak had been replaced as armed forces minister by Kim Kyok Sik, commander of the battalions linked to two deadly attacks in 2010 blamed on North Korea.

That move came amid speculation that North Korea was preparing a long-range rocket launch, which it has since successfully launched. The appointment of a hawkish general could mean North Korea wanted to show a tough face to Washington and Seoul, said analyst Hong Hyun-ik at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.

Baek Seung-joo, an analyst at the state-run Korea Institute for Defence Analyses in Seoul, adds that Kim Jong Un is trying to put his stamp on the military by building loyalty with troops and also by creating tension among generals through personnel changes.

 

A death knell for the North Korean regime?

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A New York Times excerpt on how a typical North Korean might react to a visit to a border city in China:

The lucky few North Koreans who make it to Dandong [a large Chinese, border city across the Yalu River from North Korea] are stunned by what they find: the car-choked streets, hot showers and the ability to speak out without fear.

But mostly, they are overwhelmed by the array and abundance of inexpensive food.

While her compatriots said they stuffed themselves with meat-filled dumplings and rice, Mrs. Kim ate only apples for the first five days. She said she had not eaten them since childhood.

“I thought our country lived well,” she said, “but I was mistaken.”

The more North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-Un opens his country up to the outside, the more people will find that that they have been told for half a century now is a pathetic lie. What that means for the future of the regime only time will tell, but as we’ve seen elsewhere in the world openness to the outside is often the death knell for dictatorships.

Kim Jong Un and the show of North Korean military might

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Kim Jong Un gained power by birthright, and the world is watching as he attempts to rule in his own right.

His grandfather, the “Great Leader”, passed power to his “Dear Leader” son, the erratic, eccentric Kim Jong Il. And he in turn passed power to a third generation Kim, the so-called “Supreme Leader,” not yet 30.

“He is the youngest head of state in the world,” said analyst Patrick Chovanec. “There’s still a lot of debate about how much power he has, whether other family members are in control or the military.”

Before Kim Jong Un is one of the largest armies on the planet. It is a war machine, still fighting a battle from more than half a century ago. They move in lockstep, legs kicking and arms swinging as one, discipline and focus measured in millimeters. A vast arsenal of weapons, missiles and tanks, paid for by the suffering of the people it is primed to defend.

Kim Jong Un may struggle to emerge from the shadows of his father and grandfather, but the gun here looms even larger. As young and green as he is, he knows this much: Without it, his rule and the regime itself will not survive.