North Korea watching is an inherently speculative hobby. How could it be otherwise when our most reliable information comes from satellite images and reports from KCNA, the world’s least credible news organization? The problem with having no solid facts to argue is that no one is really an expert, and anyone can pretend to be, present company included. Even “inside” sources are suspect; after all, much of their information is probably disinformation. That’s why you’ll see a lot divergent and theoretical explanations whenever the North Koreans do something that catches out attention. We see this in the analysis of the sacking of General Ri Yong Ho and the “promotion” of Kim Jong Un to the military rank of Marshal.
Most North Korea watchers believed Ri to be the commander of North Korea’s armed forces, or at least one of its top officers, and put him in either the top five or the top ten in North Korea’s power elite. I can’t name anyone who believes KCNA’s explanation that he stepped down for health reasons. From here, the consensus starts to dissipate, with various watchers picking the facts they believe and reaching the conclusions that make sense to them, and I don’t claim to be an exception. In some cases, however, I’m watching certain views gain broad acceptance despite the absence of supporting evidence, which brings out my contrarian side. Some of these conclusions seem to have been rushed to print without a careful examination of the recent historical record.
1. This still doesn’t mean Kim Jong Un is in charge.
No matter how many stars we see on Kim Jong Un’s shoulders, I just can’t take him seriously. We have no idea what happens behind the scenes in Pyongyang, of course. Yet the more time passes, the more I see the reporting about North Korea, including reporting from good reporters, baking in the assumption that Kim Jong Un is the master puppeteer behind all of the palace intrigues in North Korea, including Ri’s presumed ride in the Black Maria.
Of course, I have no more direct evidence to prove that Kim Jong Un isn’t in charge than anyone else has to prove that he is, but there is evidence is that Kim Jong Un is a spoiled, unserious, inattentive, and unprepared man trying to compete with some of the most wizened and ruthless psychopaths on the face of this earth. Can someone who couldn’t even complete high school really impose his will on a den of generals and apparatchiks who would make the Borgias cringe? What have we seen Kim Jong Un do or say that suggests even average intelligence, guile, or character? At a time when his handlers are trying to deify him as a selfless, statesmanlike savant and erase deep popular antipathy toward him, he’s letting himself be photographed with a woman who might be the wife of a military officer (and mother of said officer’s child) in an oh-we’re-definitely-doing-it-alright pose, watching floor shows of leggy damsels and unlicensed Disney characters. It has to be obvious that the North Korean people will find out about this in due course, and they’re much too conservative a people, socially speaking, to accept it. This is not the public behavior of a master of intrigue. (In fact, it’s so patently scandalous that my paranoid side suspects that one of Jong Un’s betters made a tactical decision to let him be his indulgent self just to set him up to fall. But maybe that’s too paranoid of me.)
I understand the temptation to take the nominal head of a genocidal, nuclear-armed state seriously. I can see why that’s more comforting than the alternative. That doesn’t mean there’s evidence to support that view, however. To be clear, I don’t expect reporters to engage in unsubstantiated theorizing, but I expect them to take William of Ockham to heart, and to be appropriately cautious about taking the regime’s counterfactual illusions at face value.
2. This looks more like a sign of instability than of consolidation.
To read much of the reporting on Ri’s sacking and Jong Un’s “promotion,” you’d think that Kim Jong Un was Michael Corleone coolly renouncing Satan at his son’s baptism while Clemenza’s crew whacks Moe Green, Barzini, and Tattaglia. I guess that’s possible, but it looks a bit more like this to me:
Put Ri’s sacking in context. This is a power structure known for octogenarians (and occasionally, nonagenarians) who cling to their posts for decades — sometimes even after they’re incapacitated. Kim Il Sung is still the President of North Korea, and he’s been dead since 1994, for God’s sake. In “normal” circumstances, North Korea’s power structure is exceptionally static. Four years ago, we probably wouldn’t have put Ri on our deck of playing cards. Then, soon after the 2008 stroke that we think temporarily and partially incapacitated Kim Jong Il, North Korea entered a cycle of purges. This coincided with Jang Song Thaek and his wife (and Kim Jong Il’s sister) Kim Kyong Hui grasping at the levers of power, and it also coincided with Kim Jong Un’s emergence as Kim Jong Il’s “successor,” in January 2009. The following month, Vice Marshal Kim Yong-Chun was named minister of the People’s Armed Forces of the National Defense Commission, and Ri Yong-ho became Chief of the KPA General Staff. Kim Yong Chun had made his bones by suppressing the 6th Corps mutiny in 1995. Remember this name; I’ll have more to say about him later.
In October 2010, Kim Jong Il promoted Ri (and Kim Jong Un) as Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission, and Ri was photographed sitting between Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un.
At the time, Ri was described as “a little-known general whose several promotions have put him at the literal center of the country’s political elite.”
The point being: the same system that plucked Kim Jong Un from whatever basement he played Call of Duty in also plucked Ri Yong Ho from relative obscurity at about the same time. Ri wasn’t an entrenched member of the old guard being pushed aside to make may for a new generation with new loyalties. Ri was supposed to be that new generation, and he may have played a key role in engineering Kim Jong Un’s “succession” within the military.
If those responsible for sacking the people who have just been sacked, have been sacked, it suggests that those new loyalties are proving elusive, and may hint at a power struggle, perhaps even between the party and the military. That’s especially true if, as a Reuters citation of a South Korean government report claims, Jang Song-Thaek is the one who ousted Ri. It would be just as true under other theories that hold that Ri was sidelined by political officer Choe Ryong-Hae, or both Choe and Jang.
Or, it may mean that we’re in what Bob Collins calls Phase Four.
3. No, this still doesn’t mean that North Korea is reforming.
At the end of 2009, whoever was running North Korea launched the Great Confiscation, a disastrous and retrograde currency revaluation that nearly destroyed North Korea’s nascent black market system, on which most North Koreans now rely for their food supply. The move led to an unprecedented number of protests and outbursts of spontaneous rage on the streets of North Korean towns and probably contributed to widespread hunger since. At that time, North Korea had just begun to deify Kim Jong Un. Fair or not, the North Korean street blamed him for wiping out their hard-earned savings. Still, the coincidence of Kim Jong Un’s rise with a draconian crackdown on markets and trade does not suggest that Kim Jong Un’s handlers are reformers.
The purges have continued to this day without showing any particular ideological or generational pattern. In June 2010, South Korean newspapers reported that about 100 officers were purged; others died in suspicious car accidents. One senior economic official was shot as a scapegoat for the Great Confiscation. The Old Guard hasn’t gotten away clean, either. In January 2011, 200 more senior officers were purged, many of them proteges of Gen. O Kuk Ryol, another long-time friend of Kim Jong Il who is infamous in the Treasury Department for running North Korea’s global counterfeiting operation. (O himself still hangs on, for now, as does his counterfeiting business, judging by recent reports). For those of you who are straining to find some reformist-versus-hard-liner pattern here, that same month, the Donga Ilbo reported that 30 officials who were responsible for talks and exchanges with South Korea went to the firing squad, or met their end in — you guessed it — suspicious traffic accidents.
Whoever took charge after Kim Jong Il went tits-up, their most notable domestic policy initiatives were to issue more shoot-to-kill orders against would-be refugees and tighten the system’s repressive character. But hey, Kim Jong Un went to school in Switzerland, right? I’ll let Sung Yoon Lee answer that one:
“If exposure to European cosmopolitanism were a cure for totalitarianism, one wonders how Pol Pot, who spent four years in Paris in his mid-20s, missed out on the transformative experience,” he said, referring to the murderous former dictator of Cambodia.
Reform theories persist not because they’re supported by evidence or experience, but because people like to believe in them. But reality is no optimist, especially in North Korea, and the reality is that Kim Jong Un’s rise is associated with efforts to crack down on free markets and free movement. The worst reporters covering North Korea today would ignore those signs and become paparazzi in search of Snoopy backpacks and mini-skirts. That seems like an awfully superficial basis to infer deeper signs of change.
I’ll give Andrei Lankov the last word on this:
“It’s clear there is an internal conflict between the royal family and the military,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Kookmin University. He said Kim Jong Eun, joined by his powerful aunt and uncle, has aligned himself with top Workers’ Party members and is “dressing them up in military uniforms.”
Still, Lankov and others cautioned that the changes might not indicate an actual policy shift.
“We tend to believe the military might be hard-liners and party members are technocrats,” Lankov said. “That might indicate a more relaxed policy line, but it’s too early to say. Because people usually fight not over ideas — they fight over yachts and nice houses.”
4. This might mean North Korea will be somewhat less belligerent for a while.
There is a related theory that makes a bit more sense, however — that Ri’s removal means North Korea may be less provocative beyond its borders. The Daily NK, whose analysis seems more plausible than any other I’ve linked here, says that Ri and Kim Yong Chun were behind the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks, and played a major role in North Korea’s failed missile test this spring. Shortly after that failure, North Korea seemed to be preparing for a third nuclear test, but backed down, at least for the time being. None of those aggressive moves seem to have gained much for North Korea financially. Like Ri, Kim Yong Chun was removed from his position this year. If you can suspend your skepticism about Ri and Kim’s culpability, or how anyone can possibly know that, then it becomes plausible they became scapegoats for these failures.
5. Having a bureau in Pyongyang still doesn’t give you access to real news.
Have a look at the level of detail in the AP’s reports from Pyongyang — terse, sparse, and cautious, and probably even less informative than what KCNA ran. Now, compare it to the AP’s more fulsome report from Seoul. (It would be too unkind to compare them to what the Daily NK or The Washington Post ran.) Not only did the AP not have an advantage in reporting this news, its only useful content came from outside North Korea. Qualitatively, its reporting from inside North Korea is feature-page material on its best days. This repeats the pattern we saw the last time something newsworthy happened in Pyongyang — when the North Koreans launched their missile, and the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau, along with dozens of other foreign journalists who had flown into Pyongyang, was scooped by reporters in Seoul and Washington. Once again, North Korea keeps foreign reporters in Pyongyang in the dark and uninformed about anything newsworthy, and once again, the AP finds itself caught between the competing interests of its readers and the North Korean minders embedded right in its bureau, and who probably monitor all of their internet and telephone communications.
Update: Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it. I don’t know who the source for this report is, but if what he says is true, the odds are greater than 50% that “tak[ing] control of the decaying economy from the military” to “experiment with agricultural and economic reforms” will trigger a coup d’etat. This will not only raise ideological opposition, it will also threaten the profitable enterprises many senior officers have acquired, and which they’re using to pad their salaries and lifestyles.
Update 2: Now this would be a rather serious development:
A gunbattle broke out when the North Korean regime removed army chief Ri Yong-ho from office, leaving 20 to 30 soldiers dead, according to unconfirmed intelligence reports. Some intelligence analysts believe Ri, who has not been seen since his abrupt sacking earlier this week, was injured or killed in the confrontation.
According to government officials here, the gunbattle erupted when Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, the director of the People’s Army General Political Bureau, tried to detain Ri in the process of carrying out leader Kim Jong-un’s order to sack him. Guards protecting Ri, who is a vice marshal, apparently opened fire. “We cannot rule out the possibility that Ri was injured or even killed in the firefight,” said one source.
Choe is believed to be the right-hand man of Jang Song-taek, the uncle and patron of the young North Korean leader. He made his career in the Workers Party rather than the army. After being appointed director of the bureau, Choe repeatedly clashed with Ri, who came up as a field commander, prompting Choe to keep Ri under close watch and apparently triggering an internal probe targeting the army chief. [Chosun Ilbo]
If true, this could be the beginning of the end. Hmmm. I wonder if any reporters were in Pyongyang, or whether they heard anything newsworthy.