Reconstructing Army Changes In North Korea – Analysis

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In my article of April 15, 2012, I had written as follows:

“The United States is committing a serious mistake in imposing fresh food sanctions against North Korea for attempting to launch a rocket on April 13.

“The launch — which the US described as an attempt to test a long-range missile and North Korea projected as an attempt to put a satellite in orbit to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grand-father Kim ul-Sung — failed.

North Korea

North Korea

“It was a double humiliation for North Korea, its leaders and people. The first humiliation arose from the failure of the rocket and the second from the fresh food sanctions sought to be imposed on North Korea at the instance of the US for trying to test the rocket.

“The double humiliation has come at a time when Kim Jong-Un, who succeeded his father as the ruler four months ago, seemed to have consolidated his position. On the eve of the launch, he assumed the posts of the First Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, the Chairman of the Central Military Commission and the First Chairman of the National Defence Commission, a newly-created post.

“North Korea has had rocket/missile failures in the past which it never admitted to and instead projected as a success. This time, it had to admit the failure, because, in a rare act of transparency in an otherwise closed society, Kim Jong-Un had invited nearly 150 foreign observers for the launch, even at the risk of any failure becoming public knowledge.

“This act of transparency seems to have had two objectives. Firstly, to convince the world that North Korea was placing a satellite for peaceful purposes in orbit and not testing a long-range missile as alleged by the US and South Korea.

“Secondly, it may have been an attempt at opening up of the closed North Korean society.

“This act of transparency required great courage on his part. It should have been rewarded by the opponents of North Korea, led by the US, in order to encourage him to continue on the path of gradually opening up North Korea. Instead, by seeking to strengthen the food sanctions for attempting to launch the rocket, the US is unwittingly proving to the North Korean leadership that its experimenting with transparency was unwise.

“North Korea may now reverse its experimentation with transparency and any hopes of a wind of change in the nation under the new ruler will stand belied. By humiliating Kim in the eyes of his people, the US has lost any chance of experimenting with a new policy which would have had the objective of encouraging Kim Jong-Un to gradually come out of his shell.”

A day after the failure, the Chinese Xinhua news agency disseminated the following report from Pyongyang:

“Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), has ordered promotions for 71 senior military officers, official news agency KCNA reported Saturday.( April 14)

“Kim said the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea armed forces had performed great exploits for the party, revolution, country and its people and were now fully demonstrating their strength in the defense of the country and the building of a thriving nation, the report said.

*According to the order, which was issued Friday, Pak Sun Hwan has been promoted to Lieut. General, Kim Yong Hwa, Son Kyong Bok and 68 others to Maj. General.

“Kim said they would creditably discharge their duties as vanguard fighters of the Songun (military first) revolution in the sacred struggle to accomplish the revolutionary cause of Juche generation after generation, true to the behests of Kim Jong Il.

“Juche is a political thesis of Kim Il-sung, founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which says that the Korean masses are the masters of the country’s development.

“Kim Jong Un was elected first chairman of the National Defense Commission on Friday. Earlier this week, he was appointed first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission.”

One would have normally expected that the rocket failure could lead to action being taken against those responsible. It didn’t happen. Instead, an unusually large number of officers were promoted .One doesn’t know whether the promotion orders were issued before or after the failure, but the promotions were announced a day after the failure.

South Korean media reported on June 14,2012, that Lt. Gen. Kim Rak Gyom had been appointed commanding officer of the Korean People’s Army [KPA] Strategic Rocket Force Command [SRFC] in early 2012. Lt. Gen. Kim was later elected a member of the Korean Workers’ Party Central Military Commission [CMC] during the 4th Party Conference on April 11, 2012. The existence of the SRFC was first mentioned in a DPRK state media report on March 2, 2012, when Kim Jong Un inspected its headquarters near Kangdong County in northeast Pyongyang. The SRFC was reportedly created in 2011 when North Korea consolidated all short-, medium- and intermediate-range missile units into a unified command under the National Defense Commission [NDC].

South Korean media speculated that Col. Gen. Choe Sang Ryo, who was the head of the SRFC, might have been removed during the 4th Party Conference in April 2012 and replaced by Kim Rak Gyom.If so, why was he removed? There was no answer.

The North Korean State media reported that a national meeting was held on June 18, 2012, to commemorate the 48th anniversary of Kim Jong Il beginning his career in the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee. Present at the meeting were Kim Yong Nam, Choe Yong Rim, Choe Ryong Hae and Ri Yong Ho, members of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. Kim Ki Nam, a member of the Political Bureau and secretary of the Central Committee, submitted a report to the meeting. It described Kim Jong Un as the center of the leadership and unity, thereby indicating that the publicly admitted rocket failure had not damaged his position in the Party and the Army.

On July 8,2012, Kim Jong Un visited the War Museum in Pyongyang to mark the 18th anniversary of the death of Kim Il Sung. In remarks made during the visit, he emphasised the importance of the role of the “youth” and the “generations to come”, indicating he was having in mind the possible future role of North Korea’s GenNext. That would have been possible only by gradually jettisoning party and army leaders of the older generation whom he had inherited from his father. Would he have the power to do so and if so, how soon? That was a question that defied analysis in the absence of authentic information from North Korea’s closed society. Among those who accompanied Kim to the function were Vice Marsha Kim Jong Gak, VM Choe Ryong Hae, VM Ri Yong Ho and VM Hyon Chol Hae.

The Kim Il Sung Youth League [KISYL] held a national conference at Pyongyang on July 12, 2012.The conference had two agenda items, the first of which was an endorsement of the leadership of Kim Jong-Un. The second item approved a change in the designations of the Youth League officials as Chairman and Vice-Chairman instead of as First Secretary and Secretary.

The North Korean state media reported on July 13, 2012, that Kim Jong Un had attended a commemorative photo session with construction workers from the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces [KPISF] . At the photo op, Kim Jong Un was joined by Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, Jang Song Taek, Gen. Ri Myong Su, Col. Gen. Ri Pyong Sam, Ri Ryong Ha, Pak Chun Song and “generals of the KPISF.” Ri Yong Ho was not present.

Engineers’ units subordinate to KPISF and the Ministry of People’s Security have been responsible for some infrastructure construction, particularly tunnels. In recent years the KPISF has built or renovated several food production facilities, including the Taedonggang Combined Fruit Farm.

On July 16, 2012, the North Korean media reported that Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho had been removed from all official positions in the party and the Army due to illness. Among the posts held by him at the time of his removal were Chief of the General Staff of the Army and one of the five members of the Standing Committee of the Party Politbureau referred to as the Presidium.

On September 27, 2010, Kim Jong Il had issued an order in his capacity of the supreme commander of the Army promoting Ri Yong Ho to the rank of Vice- Marshal and Kim Jong Un to that of General, a rank below Vice- Marshal. He also nominated Kim Jong Un and Ri Yong Ho as the two Vice-Chairmen of the Central Military Commission. He did not have Kim Jong Un included in the Presidium of the Party, but he was elected to the party central committee at the Party Congress held on September 28,2010.

Thus while inducting Kim Jong Un into the Army and the party Central Committee in order to pave the way for his succeeding him, Kim Jong Il took care not to ruffle the feathers of Ri Yong Ho by giving him a higher position in the party and army leadership.

Two others who were given senior positions were Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong Il’s 65-year-old sister, and her husband, Jang Song-thaek, both given the rank of four-star Generals. She was elected to the Party Central Committee and Politbureau at the September 28, 2010, Party Conference. Kim Song Il also had her husband appointed as the Secretary of the Administrative Department in the Party Headquarters and as one of the four Assistant Vice-Chairmen of the National Defence Commission of the Government as distinguished from the Central Military Commission of the Party to which he was not nominated. Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho and Kim Jong Un were nominated as the two Deputy Chairmen of the National Defence Commission.

Thus, Kim Jong Un inherited from his father on his death a triumvirate of three senior mentors in Party and Army who, his father hoped, would put him through his paces as he consolidated his position in the party and the Army. He succeeded his father as the de facto head of the party and the Army. By April 12, 2012, a day before the unsuccessful rocket test, he had made himself the de jure head by taking over as the chairman of the National Defense Commission, the First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and Chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission.

However, his dependence on the triumvirate of senior mentors left behind by his father continued with Jang Song Thaek emerging to the top of the triumvirate. According to Radiopress of Japan, Kim Jong Un made 81 reported visits during the first six months of 2012 — 40 of them Army-connected events and the remaining 41 civilian events. He was escorted by his brother-in-law on 61 occasions. Second and third to him were VM Choe Ryong Hae (Director of the Army’s General Political Department) and VM Ri Yong Ho, both of whom had been nominated by the Party in April,2012, as Vice-Chairmen of the Central Military Commission.

On July 8, 2012, Kim Jong Un had visited the War Museum in Pyongyang to mark the 18th anniversary of the death of Kim Il Sung. Among those who accompanied him was Vice-Marshal Ri Yong Ho, (aged 70) who appeared to be in good health. Within a week, he was removed from all his posts ostensibly on grounds of illness. What suddenly happened to his health within a week? If he had been taken seriously ill beyond recovery, why didn’t he resign? Why he had to be removed? No explanations were forthcoming from Pyongyang.

Immediately after his removal, KCNA reported that Kim Jong Un had sent a message of thanks to soldiers of the North Korean internal security forces for “their tremendous feats in major construction projects.” Kim praised the servicemen for their participation in projects including the construction of the country’s largest hydroelectric power plant, a food processing factory and a university library. This gave rise to speculation that Ri Yong Ho might have opposed the use of the military for civilian construction projects and this might have led to his removal. There is no confirmation of this.

On July 17, 2012. North Korean Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun announced the promotion of General Hyon Yong-chol to the rank of Vice-Marshal. Little is known about his age, education or background. He was a Lieutenant- General of the eighth army and was promoted as General at the September 2010 Workers’ Party meeting, when Kim Jong Un made his debut in the party and the Army.

Vice-Marshal Hyon has not yet been designated as the successor of Ri Yong Ho as the Chief of the General Staff, which would make him the head of the Army, which is still without a head. There are four other Vice-Marshals senior to him. A more important person in the Army and Party leadership is Choe Ryong Hae, the son of Choe Hyon who served as the North’s Defense Minister from 1968 to 1976. In April last, he became a Vice Marshal, a member of the Politburo Presidium of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, a Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and director of the Army’s General Political Bureau. Choe is considered the third most important person in the leadership as of now after Kim Jong Un and Jang Song Thaek.

Both Vice-Marshal Choe and VM Hyon belong to the post-Kim Ul Sung leadership, who owe their rise to Kim Jong-un, but VM Choe is alleged to have divided loyalty to Jang Song Thaek, who seemed to have played a role in his elevation.

If Kim Jong Un wanted as the head of the Army someone whose loyalty to him is total, he should prefer Hyon. But he would find it difficult to overlook VM Choe because of the powerful posts held by him since April, 2012, and his reputed closeness to Jang Song Thaek.

What are the reasons for the sudden changes in the Army leadership—genuine illness of Ri Yong Ho or is there a power struggle which is continuing or has Kim Jong Un been able to assert his leadership and place in position officers totally owing their rise to him?

It is difficult to answer. But one thing seems likely. Things have started moving in North Korea— away from the days of Kim Jong Un’s father. The US, South Korea, Japan and China should let things evolve—hopefully in a positive and more transparent direction, by restraining any urge to exercise pressure on the leadership. Nothing can be more counter-productive than adding to the fears of the new leadership over the intentions and agenda of the outside world.

B. Raman

B. Raman was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: [email protected]

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