In the famously opaque world of North Korean politics, the ongoing leadership transition is in some ways proving more dagger than cloak with reports of executions and purges of top military officials in recent days.
South Korean newspapers this week reported on the execution of Kim Chol, North Korea’s vice minister of the North Korean military, and other senior military officials earlier this year for drinking liquor during the mourning period for former leader Kim Jong Il. Kim’s son, Kim Jong Un, who is the new leader of North Korea, has overseen purges of other former leaders from the military ranks for being involved in sex scandals the reports also said.
“Contrary to what might be the popular perception that there is a smooth transition going on from the father to the son, these reports show there is still a lot of churn going on inside the system,” Victor Cha, a former Korea specialist on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, told CNN.
For Cha, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the moves under way in North Korea may signal a shift in leadership styles for the new young leader.
“All these actions being taken against the military by (Kim Jong Un) clearly show that they are trying to take some power away from the military, and give it back to (the ruling) party,” Cha said.
Under Kim Jong Il, North Korea followed a “military first” policy in which the military was given a lot of business concessions, and had a financial stake in many sectors of the North Korean economy such as mining, and its relations with China.
In a country suffering chronic food shortages and famine, the military has also benefited from the government’s diversion of food aid to the military ranks.
North Korea watchers were taken somewhat by surprise earlier this year when Ri Yong Ho, a senior general in the North Korean military, was purged from his high position. Ri, the key military figure visibly near Kim Jong Un in the days following his father’s death in December, was seen by many to have been one of the generals Kim Jong Il designated to guide his son through the leadership transition.
Analysts who follow the situation closely see a possible situation in the works where the new leader is attempting to bring the ruling Workers Party back to a position of economic prominence in the country - much like his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder.
But pulling that off successfully may pose a challenge for the younger Kim.
Kim Jong Un “still needs the military to solidify his new regime, but within a recalibrated balance of power,” John Park, a Stanton Junior Faculty Fellow at MIT, told CNN.
As the power consolidation phase inside North Korea continues, analysts are watching how lucrative business concessions are redistributed, and how big a slice of the economic pie ultimately goes to the military.
“How long this phase will last is uncertain,” Park said. “But I think we are going to see wide ranging reports either of people being removed and given other assignment posts, or the more extreme reports of people being executed.”
One person to keep an eye on is Jang Song Taek, Kim’s uncle who is married to the sister of Kim Jong Il. Jang, who is seen as an experienced interlocutor with China, the North’s biggest benefactor, and the one with the most managerial experience closest to Kim, still plays a prominent role in the government, but questions remain on his ultimate role once the power consolidation phase is complete.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the future path for North Korea is still uncertain under the inexperienced young leader.
“I think the bottom line is we still don’t know whether or not he will simply follow in the steps of his father or whether he represents a different kind of leadership for the future,” Panetta said at a Pentagon press conference alongside the visiting South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin.
“Kim Jong Un recently is trying to introduce new economic reform measures,” the South Korean minister said. “He seems to be making attempts to bring a better life to his people, but the likelihood of success, it’s still – it’s yet to be seen.”
Minister Kim added that he believed Kim Jong Un would ultimately choose to continue the “military first” policy.
But the recent purges and executions of military elites have left in their wake huge patronage networks that certainly must be wondering what it all means.
That, analysts say, could open the door to greater instability in an already unstable part of the world.
“Cutting the political legs out from under the military is kind of a risky strategy,” Cha said.
If Kim Jong Un “can’t improve the food situation, the economic situation, and you have disenfranchised groups – just objectively speaking, that is not a good combination.”