By Kim Young-jin
Personnel moves made by North Korea this week were aimed to strengthen the grip of young leader Kim Jong-un, analysts said Wednesday. But it remained to be seen whether the developments were a show of strength or sign of possible fracture.
By announcing the same day that Kim had been made marshal of the country’s armed forces, a post held by his late father, Kim Jong-il, most watchers agreed the regime was trying to make crystal clear who is in charge following the senior Kim’s death.
The move came after Pyongyang closed ranks around the twenty-something leader by dismissing former military chief Ri Yong-ho and elevating Hyon Yong-chol, a little-known Army general, to vice marshal.
Amid speculation of a power struggle, however, it remained up for debate whether the moves strengthened the young leader’s position or reflected the potential for sudden developments.
Daniel Pinkston, an analyst with the International Crisis Group said the ouster of potential regime challengers were par for the course in a dictatorship.
“These are more signs that the succession is complete and that Kim Jong-un is in charge of the military. Purges are to be expected to decrease the likelihood of coups or challenges.”
Under the scenario, the moves appear to be in line with Pyongyang’s efforts to retire confidantes of the late Kim and promote younger figures associated with Kim Jong-un in order to differentiate the new leader.
Other analysts argue that the possibility remains that the fall of Ri ― who is credited with a key role in consolidating Kim’s power ― may mark the consolidation of powers behind the throne. Speculation was rampant that Ri may have challenged Choe Ryong-hae, a rising party official recently made a vice marshal.
The development has intensified attention on Kim’s powerful uncle and confidante Jang Song-thaek as many believed Ri was elevated through the ranks in order to play a balancing role to him.
Scott Snyder, a Korea analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations said the situation remained ambiguous.
“Ri’s removal will invite new scrutiny of North Korean leadership stability and cohesiveness, and once again raises uncertainty regarding the future of the regime,” he said.
“Who else among Ri’s support network might be at risk? Is the purge of Ri Yong-ho the beginning of the end of stability in North Korea or is it the end of the beginning … a sign that power has been consolidated, at least for the time being?”
Pinkston noted, however, that the ability to organize a challenge to the regime appeared slim, citing the regime’s complex security structure designed to snuff out collective action. And by dropping Ri, Kim showed he is willing to let go of even senior figures.
Others have speculated that the shakeup suggests a power shift from the military to the ruling Workers’ Party after years of the late Kim’s “military first” style, as Choe and Jang are known primarily as political figures. The regime, however, has yet to show any signs of rolling back hard line policies.