North Korea: ’Before the storm’
WASHINGTON — Kim Jong-un’s North Korea is muddling along. So far so good. The instinct for survival shared by the Kim family and the dynastic element of the key leadership is keeping things in check. But the devil is in the details, according to Jack Pritchard, a well-known expert on North Korea and a former key U.S. negotiator who often flew to Pyongyang.
“It’s exactly what you would expect to see: a very smooth transition — on the surface,” said Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute (KEI), at his office that overlooks K Street in downtown Washington.
Established in 1982 as a non-profit organization, KEI is a “Korea hub” in Washington whose scope of activity embraces all aspects of the U.S.-Korea relationship.
Pritchard believes there’s nothing strange about the apparent composedness. “It’s in the interest of all the power base now in North Korea to ensure that the public face of North Korea under the new young leader looks stable and the post-Kim Jong-il North Korea displays continuity of appearance to the late leader.”
He dismisses the current “calm” as interim in nature as if it were in the eye of a storm center — a total serene state before a big shock.
Kim Jong-il had a stroke in August 2008. Analysts at that time viewed that the North had not well prepared for a transition to his son. “The only way it would work was if Kim Jong-il survived for a relatively long period of time. That was, at least several years,” said Pritchard, concluding that what resulted was “a very hasty establishment of a transition plan.”
So, what’s in store for Jong-un? Pritchard doesn’t think he is the sole authority in North Korea. And that naturally poses a threat to the young king, who suddenly inherited his father’s dynasty.
Jong-un is surrounded by power peddlers, who are much older than him. These include the usual list of individuals: Jang Song-taek, Jong-un’s uncle; Kim Kyong-hui, his aunt; Ri Yong-ho, a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC); Kim Yong-chun, a vice chairman on the National Defense Commission; and Kim Kyok-sik, a hardliner general who reportedly supervised the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, among other things.
“The question becomes at what point Kim Jong-un and those surrounding him come into conflict with each other when they face an internal or external crisis. So the key test will be either a domestic or external crisis that causes them to make a very deliberate decision for which it may be not in the best interests of the other portions of the ruling elite,” said Pritchard.
A bellwether to watch, he said, is the competition between the Workers’ Party and the military.
After Kim Il-sung died in 1994, Kim Jong-il consolidated his power by weakening the authority of the Workers’ Party — the main power platform his father used to rule the country. It was because the old guards in the party were powerful, restraining Kim Jong-il’s budding authority.
In an effort to structure his own power base, Kim Jong-il used the National Defense Commission (NDC) and elevated it as the highest state body, with ultimate executive power resting with its chairman: Kim himself.
He also initiated a new national motto of the “military-first” policy.
With Kim in charge, the NDC naturally became the most powerful organ. But after his stroke, Kim also began to worry about what would happen to Jong-un after he was gone. “I think Kim Jong-il, after his recovery from the stroke, decided that his son, who was 25 or 26 at that time, would be unable to create serious credentials within the military,” said Pritchard. “So, Kim Jong-il attempted to shift the power pendulum back to the Workers’ Party.”
Citing a North Korean official, Japan’s Mainichi newspaper on Feb. 4 said Kim Jong-un ordered a portion of the rice, collected for military use, to be distributed to the people. The move was unusual enough that the North Korean official called it “a kind of reform.”
That may be a subtle hint of a back-pedaling from the military-first policy. Yet outwardly, Jong-un still has to keep the appearance of sticking to the “military-first” policy in a bid to bolster his status with the armed forces.
Pritchard judges that the attempt to revitalize the Workers’ Party (so as to empower Jong-un) is incomplete, posing a threat to him. He anticipates increasing competition between the party and the military. “It will be interesting to see how the rivalry plays out.”
Although Kim Jong-un was given four-star general status, he is not currently a member of the NDC. “I am watching whether Kim Jong-un will be named a member of the NDC,” said Pritchard.
The “calm” period will hold through April 15, the centenary anniversary of Kim Il-sung, said Pritchard. “Then, we will begin to see perhaps some signs of conflict among those behind the throne there, even though that may not be immediately perceptible to the outside world.”
The North Korean elite want to prevent an internal storm. “So, they’ve made some attempt to cross-balance power. For example, Ri Yong-ho, a vice chief of CMC inside the Workers’ Party, is also vice marshal of the Korean People’s Army. You also see Jang Song-taek, a civilian leader, now wearing a military uniform too. What you see is cross-countering, if you will.”
But Pritchard thinks the move is likely to be insufficient to avoid the storm. “Initially, it will play out okay. But they have not faced a crisis yet.”
He paused and then continued: “I don’t anticipate this current Kim Jong-un structure to last for more than a year or two.”