What is going on inside North Korea?
Kim Jong Un is shown inspecting the Seoul Ryu Kyong Su 105 Guards Tank Division of the Korean People's Army earlier this year in this photo taken by North Korea's official news agency.
October 25th, 2012
05:31 PM ET

What is going on inside North Korea?

By Jamie Crawford

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."

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Filed under: Kim Jong-un • North Korea
soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. krm1007 ©™

    The Indian Debacle could overshadow the North Korean or European crisis. GDP that has dropped off the cliff (4% est), budget deficits, collapse of Indian rupiah, rampant poverty, unemployment, FDI reversal, companies leaving town are some of the disastrous events that are threatening the Indian state. The downward spiralling is so severe that the Indian government has been unable to control it. Even the Americans have been unable to help and several trips by the treasury secretary were not helpful. This also has security repercussions for India and US defense secretary and secretary of state have flown in to counsel India on how to protect its borders with the help of Israel/IDF. Rumors have it that the breakup of India along the lines of Soviet Union is a very plausible scenario that I am sure intelligence agencies all over the world are factoring in their geopolitical stress tests.

    October 27, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  2. Great China

    USA military wants no part of NK in battle. USA can't defeat Arab countries ,they would get destroyed by either NK or China in war. Keep fighting little Arab militaries America, your not ready to tackle the Asian super powers.

    October 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Reply
    • TPaine

      China feeds NK to the singular purpose of examining the length of chain attached to the collar of a rabid dog.

      October 27, 2012 at 12:58 am | Reply
    • 7.62

      You're funny, Not very smart, but funny. Be still, or we'll make a film about your country that will destroy you.

      October 27, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Reply
      • TPaine

        I prefer funny to smart, thank you.
        Now you can get back to your South Korean Soap Opera and carry on with your wishful thinking.

        October 27, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Rob

      You are absolutely stupid. You know nothing of power. China doesn't even have a real air carrier or a true naval fleet. By the way, we killed millions of you people in the Korean war, we didn't even come close to losing 50,000. Now you dog eating piece of trash, say something with a little more thought put into it. We are good at killing people. Asian cultures through numbers at war, not thought. I like Asian cultures, but not people like you who.

      October 28, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Reply
    • An0n

      Aw is poor baby butt-hurt? Does poor baby want a bottle?

      Either way, you're an idiot. No I didn't say ignorant- I said idiot.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  3. Mohammed

    Note the ages of all the military personnel ever seen pictured in close proximity to this tyrant. Like his father before him, he knows better than to have any soldiers under the age of about 70 near him.

    Also, where's his new wife? She's been missing for 41 days now. Considering this dictator blew up one of his own people with a mortar round recently, I think the disappearance of his wife, as well as his violent disposition, deserve more worldwide media attention right about now.

    Don't you?

    October 26, 2012 at 9:57 am | Reply
  4. Hahahahahahahahha

    Looks like Lil Dong One is saying, "No black olives on my pizza or I will kill you!" Hahahahahahahaahaha

    October 26, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
  5. Joseph McCarthy

    What I want to know is just how much of this post is true and how much is sheer right-wing propaganda. True, the North Koreans do need to put more emphasis on their economy and less on their military just like we Americans need to do here at home! Unfortunately, Mytt Robmey wants to squander another $2T on it over the next ten years and that's quite unacceptable!

    October 26, 2012 at 12:35 am | Reply
    • StanCalif

      Romney's plan to spend $2T on military hardware (the military hasn't asked for!) is simply another plan to take good care of his favored 2% ! Oh, and cut their taxes also! Make the 47% pay for it. Military hardware contracts are the sweetest "gravy train" in existance! Once started, military hardware contracts are next to impossible to stop. This is simply the easiest way for Romney to reward the "right" people!
      At least Romney is "honest" enough to warn us that he plans on being a "big spender"!!!

      October 26, 2012 at 7:07 am | Reply
  6. Tembisa

    Reblogged this on World Chaos.

    October 25, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Reply
  7. saeed

    1 australian and 2 usa soldiers got gunned to dust today bom bom bom throught 3 flat faces.

    October 25, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
    • Hello

      40 towels went boom boom in front of a mosque 40 less vermin woot woot sounds like a good trade.

      October 26, 2012 at 10:27 am | Reply
    • FutureSEAL

      About 50 ragheads got blown up at a mosque today boom

      October 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Reply

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