[Analysis] How real are the recent North Korean threats?
In recent days, the North Korean military has issued bold and public war threats such as, ‘Yeonpyeongdo and Paekryongdo residents leave now!’ and ‘It is not long before Yeonpyeongdo will turn into a sea of fire.’ More than before, there seems a likelihood that these threats are not merely intended as empty threats.
This is because of the domestic power play currently unfolding within North Korea: the power holders currently surrounding Kim Jong-un are probably more desirous of making a tangible impact that appears to destabilize the situation on the peninsula than concerned, at present, with long-term stability. The focus now for these people is how to take command of the situation and consolidate their power. China has agreed to the UN Security Council’s sanctions and this is because they, more than anyone else, know about this fight for power that has been unfolding since Kim Jong-il’s death.
At first, the residual spirit of competition for Kim Jong-il’s loyalty meant that it was all about securing the situation for Kim Jong-un’s hereditary succession. Among the power holders, the mourning period following Kim Jong-il’s death looks to have played a large role in uniting people in this atmosphere of loyalty to Kim Jong-il. Yet with the death of the man, they would have experienced a sudden power vacuum. During Kim Jong-il’s life, they could survive on the established logic loyalty. With no more clear standard of power, however, but a state to continue running, avoidance of real responsibilities would have arisen among these people.
The figure who rose to fill the vacuum at this time was Kim Kyong-hui, the paternal aunt of Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-un himself, trusting in the family tie, would have leaned towards her too. Thanks to this, Jang Sung-taek’s rise to powerful prominence was made possible. Jang Sung-taek began in earnest to reinforce his areas of influence, that is, internal security and domestic military. At the same time, Kim Kyong-hui put Premier Choi Young-rim on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun and used him to fortify her power base by means of regent rule. One of the first steps taken was to move the military economy into the sphere of government. Kim Kyong-hui required the military economy to be reined in; otherwise the basis of her power, the North Korean economy, would not provide her with the required clout.
Nevertheless, Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Sung-taek had great thorns in their sides. While Kim Jong-il was alive, they had been considered ‘side-branches’ to be cut off the trunk of Kim’s rule, and consequently given only nominal positions. In a situation where the Party’s Organization and Guidance Department thoroughly ruled over the military, government and even over regional power holders, the aunt and uncle could not rely solely on the fact of having family ties to Kim Jong-un to affect a kind of coup and shift the foundations of an order established over decades.
The fact that Kim Jong-un’s guards were not directly managed by them, but by the jurisdiction of the Party’s Organization and Guidance Department, only added to the limitation of their powers.
In anticipation of the military powers opposing to their rise, Kim Kyong-hui therefore put Choi Ryong-hae – with no military experience – in the key position of leading the General Political Bureau. The military and Party’s OAG Department probably allowed this to happen due to the lingering atmosphere of absolute loyalty to Kim Jong-il: although Choi, during Kim Jong-il’s life, had been ousted to the fringes of power, he nevertheless shared a revolutionary connection going back to the time of their father, Kim Il-sung sand Choi Hyun.
This family history had often made him a target too. When Kim Jong-il could not ignore the reports of Choi Ryong-hae’s moral flaws or materialism, he was dismissed to a farm in Jagang-do. Within two years, however, he was promoted to supervise the Pyongyang City Central Heating Company, then given a role in the Central Party Secretariat, then made Party Secretary of North Hwanghae province, then finally, as Central Party Workers’ Organization Secretary. To oppose such a Choi Ryong-hae would be seen as a challenge to Kim Jong-il’s legitimacy. The reason that Ri Young-ho, Chief of General Staff, was dismissed, was apparently because he had opposed Choi’s promotion as well as Choi and Kim Kyong-hui’s plans to move the military economy under government control.
But the run of Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Sung-taek’s power ended there. The military was in fact strengthened after Ri Young-ho’s dismissal. Moreover, regent rule floundered with the strong support that likely ensued to cement Kim Jong-un’s identity as an absolute power holder. The Party’s Organization and Guidance Department was probably led to support the military in this line because they were in an uncomfortable position with Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Sung-taek. Finally, Cho Ryong-hae, despite his appointment, could not consolidate support in a military environment that wasn’t his element.
In Kim Jong-il’s era, the ruler’s trust in someone could lead to a fast recovery of power, but now it is Kim Jong-un’s era. The military probably wished to speed the rocket launch and nuclear test, thinking in terms of legacy politics. Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Sung-taek may have advised on a slower progress due to internal and external circumstances, but their opinions could not prevail.
Ultimately, the Party’s Organization and Guidance Department and military sided with each other in order to prevent Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Sung-taek from achieving a monopoly on power, and demanded a speedy nuclear test – despite China’s call for restraint. The nurturing of a personality cult of Kim Sul-song was probably instigated too in order to dilute Kim Kyong-hui’s authority. In the beginning, Kim Jong-un’s on-site guidance visits were mainly to places of internal security and economic relevant, with Jang Sung-taek never far away. Yet in photos of Kim Jong-un related to the rocket test and security meetings, or in the recent KPA visits, Jang Sung-taek is perspicuously absent. This is further evidence to suggest that with the rocket launch and nuclear test, Kim Jong-un has come to be surrounded by the military.
In that space of limbo between a state of war and peace, the North Korean military is doing its best to take full advantage of the situation and secure their authority for time to come. It is due to these internal circumstances that the North Korean military, at present, are champing at the bit to demonstrate their show of force through military provocation. The time is an dangerous one, and the current danger is not North Korea’s threat of war (North Korea dreads it); the current danger is the North Korean military becoming the dominant force in the country.
Editor-in-chief, Jang Jin-sung