As Kim Jong-il’s funeral procession moved through the streets of Pyongyang on December 28 2011, it snowed – a sign that the sky was crying in grief, according to the North Korean propaganda machine. The snowflakes were nature’s unwitting contribution to a carefully choreographed ceremony in the North Korean capital, a ceremony designed to pass the message that while the flame of the “Dear Leader” had gone out, the cosmos of his isolated dictatorship remained intact.
Eight men walked beside the limousine bearing Kim’s coffin: four generals on one side, and four Party leaders on the other. Leading the politicians was chubby Kim Jong-un, 28, the son of the deceased who for years had been his designated successor.
At the head of the generals in uniforms on the other side of the hearse: Ri Yong-ho, 69, Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army. As usual, his face wore an expression of patient suffering. The dead dictator had built him up to his current high level as he groomed his son as heir to the throne -- Ri was clearly meant to function as a mentor to young Kim, and provide a link to the army.
Flash-forward seven months: the cosmos of North Korea’s dictatorship is undergoing major changes -- and Ri Yong-ho has been dismissed.
According to K.C.N.A., the state-run news agency, Ri’s health problems were the reason cited by the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) for the decision to relieve Ri of all of his Party duties. However, during recent public appearances, Ri had appeared to be in good health, and in any case health in a country with a chronically over-aged elite has never before been a reason for relinquishing power.
Some Korea-watchers think the real explanation behind Ri’s removal lies in a power struggle between the country’s civil and military leaders. One such observer is Park Hyeong-jung, a researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification in Seoul. The South Korean caught on early to signs of conflict.
"In April, at the fourth Party conference followed by a gathering of the Supreme People’s Assembly, there were some interesting appointments that clearly showed that the Party and the political security apparatus were tightening their grip on the military," says Park.
The most significant of these appointments, according to Park, was that of Choe Ryong-hae, a politician close to Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek. He received several promotions -- among them to Vice Marshall and Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission. "That a civilian would fill this function is totally out of the ordinary," says Park.
The appointments were an insult to Ri, Park says, because the sum of his functions made Choe – not Ri -- the number one man in the Party. "It’s entirely possible that Ri didn’t accept this de facto demotion, and so he had to go."
But staffing issues are also down to money, Park says: "The army has been having supply problems for years. This year it appropriated much more food than usual from farmers. But that move went against the plans of the new elite around Kim Jong-un and his uncle Jang Song-thaek."
Jang particularly wants to change the economy and establish clearer areas of responsibility, based on the Chinese model. However, "this is not about genuine reform" in Park’s opinion. "The new leadership clique just wants to bring more foreign currency into the country, and that is more likely to benefit them than the people."
Some in the West were hoping that the recent pop concert with dancers in Mickey Mouse costumes, to which Kim Jong-un attended, was somehow a sign of a "North Korean Spring.” This week's moves, Park says, appear to bury that hope.
"Politically speaking, this move is not reform-minded – on the contrary. Its goal appears to be even stronger political control through the Party and the security services."
Park says the Disney-inspired concert was more likely due to the fact that North Korean state media have to try and keep up with the South Korean and Chinese productions that are increasingly filtering into the country.
He says there is no real opposition to the military and Party in North Korea.
Furthermore, says Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, there are no signs of a power struggle between the military and the Party. "The two pillars of the system are far too closely interwoven for them to work against each other in any widespread way," he says. "The most plausible conclusion to be drawn from Ri’s fall is mainly that Kim’s uncle Jang has managed to increase his own influence."
Snyder says the latest developments could impact North Korea’s relationship with China. "It’s known that Beijing feels comfortable having Jang among the top leaders," he says. "China has been looking for ways to exercise its influence in North Korea, particularly to keep the nuclear issue in check."
Kim had agreed to a moratorium on the North Korean nuclear weapons program in exchange for US aid, then promptly nullified the deal by testing a long-range rocket. Snyder doesn’t believe that the U.S. will pick up where things left off, however. Right now, he says, the presidential elections are the main issue, and a new administration first has to establish its priorities in terms of foreign policy. Until all that’s done, he quips: "Washington is as unpredictable as Pyongyang."
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