While pressed for time, it would be inconsistent of me to ignore here the recent upheavals in the government of North Korea. I have undertaken to bring to readers’ attentions the views of a number of top analysts in the field.
There are mixed opinions as to the reasoning behind the replacement of Ri Yong Ho in the military establishment behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Until a few days ago Ri Youn Ho, 69, held a position in North Korea second only to Kim himself. He was a key mentor to Kim Jong-Un, as Kim grew and was being prepared to take the reins of the belligerent North Korea. Ri is often seen in photographs of Kim the Younger and was with the young Korean through the transition following the death of Kim Jong-Il. North Korea is a strongly military nation, maintaining a disciplined standing army of 28,000 men (some authorities claim a much higher figure). The army plays a major role in the maintenance of missiles and nuclear technology, and in the dissemination of anti-South Korea, anti-American rhetoric.
Analyst Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group, says that the sudden ouster may be intended as a warning to those who would challenge the young Kim. The displaced Ri Youn Ho was lauded in years past, but lately he has been overlooked, generating speculation as to his future.
Bruce Klingner, at the Heritage Foundation, tends to agree. He says the shake-up is cause for concern, whether the Korean leader is merely emplacing younger men, or responding to a challenge to his authority.
Koh Yu-hwan, of Dongguk University in Seoul, says the replacement of Ri Youn Ho which will effectively place rising star Choe Ryong-hae as the top political officer and supervisor of the army. This may indicate that Ho lost a significant power struggle. Choe has had several promotions in recent years, and was one of three new vice marshals announced earlier this year. Some sources refer to Choe as the puppet master behind Kim Jong-Un.
John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in South Korea offered his insights, “Whether because of a physical malady or political sin, Ri Yong Ho is out, and Pyongyang is letting the world know to not expect to hear about him anymore. Perhaps [Ri] was always meant to be a transitional regent figure, and his function is played.”
Paik Hak-soon, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank, sees a simpler explanation: “Kim Jong-un must have wanted to replace Ri Yong-ho with his own man … since Ri Yong-ho was his father’s right-hand man.” Paik Hak-soon sees this as just the beginning of generational changes.
Analyst Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), quoted in The Korea Times, a South Korean news publication, feels that the young Kim may be favoring military officers with political experience, “Kim Jong-il, who was good at politics, relatively preferred military officers with battlefield experience. But Kim Jong-un, who is less experienced, is expected to favor soldiers who have a sense of politics.” The Times adds that Seoul officials are keeping a close tap on the North Korean military in light of the latest shift in the power structure in the communist state.
The Christian Science Monitor refers to “The organizational issue.” The Monitor states that Ri was relieved of his duties and positions on Sunday [July 15] ostensibly due to illness. This was done at a high-level party meeting, a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, a meeting convened to talk about the organizational issue, “It decided to relieve Ri Yong-ho of all his posts including member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau, member of the Political Bureau of the C.C., WPK and vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the WPK for his illness.” The downfall of Mr. Ri, the Monitor quotes Korea scholar Donald Clark as saying, raises the probability of more power shifts. Says Clark, “Fasten your seat belts, there’s turbulence ahead.”
Choi Jin-wook, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification goes into detail. Speculation, he says, focuses on the role of Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the national defense commission and husband of Kim Jong-il’s younger sister. Mr. Jang, he says, may be the individual exercising the greatest influence on Kim Jong-un whom he calls, “inexperienced in party affairs and government.”
As the extreme changes in the political/military segments are taking place, Kim Jong Un has been seen in the North Korean media. State TV last weekend saw the leader watching a concert, and visiting with schoolchildren in the company of an unnamed young lady who was described as “carrying herself much like a first lady.”
Let’s consider the opinion of one last expert. Professor Yang Moo Jin a professor at the University of North Korean Studies told Bloomberg News, “All high-ranking officials customarily remain in service throughout, regardless [of] sicknesses, and hold their posts until they die. The firing of Ri means the end of the country’s hawkish ‘military-first’ policy putting the troops before any other policy objective, and possibly the beginning of governance more focused on improving the economy.”
Photo credits: Korean Times, sulekha.com, The New York Times