In what is being called a military purge to pave the way for his personal ascension, North Korea's Kim Jong-un has sacked a top general under the pretext of illness to put his stamp on the highest echelons of military leadership. The announcement of these abrupt changes has onlookers wondering about Kim's motivations and future plans.
Earlier this month, the government of the profoundly impoverished and militaristic North Korea announced that one of its most powerful army chiefs was stepping down due to illness. Ri Yong-ho, who occupied the highest staff position among the Korean People's Army (KPA), has been abruptly relieved. Ri had been an unusually visible icon in North Korea's otherwise secretive inner-circle. As such, his sudden “purge” has taken many by surprise.
Strictly speaking, of course, it is possible that the official line is true and that Ri has suffered a sudden downturn in health. If this is the case, it will not result in many ripples. After all, it stands to reason that if there was going to be a bitter struggle to fill a power vacuum, it would have occurred immediately following Kim Jong-Il's death.
Most people are skeptical of the “illness” line, however, and rightly so. Similar covers have masked shadowy dealings in the past and Ri, in his late sixties, is relatively younger (and at least in appearance, more vital) than many of North Korea's aging top brass, who furthermore are not known for letting age or frailty get in the way of ruling. These factors, combined with the fact that Kim Jong-un has replaced Ri with Hyon Yong-chol - a virtual unknown - while assuming ultimate KPA authority for himself, strongly suggest that the purge is a deliberate restructuring tactic, and not the simple retirement of an old and ailing soldier. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Ri's removal may have even been violently resisted, resulting in a firefight that might have killed Ri himself.
Whether Ri was removed peacefully or violently, and irrespective of his current status, the change is latest in a series of boons to the non-military side of North Korea's government. The ruling Worker's Party of Korea (WPK) seems to be rising in relation to its military counterpart. With the outsider Hyon as chief of staff and new political councils that go over the head of KPA leadership, North Korea's military-first philosophy may be crumbling. Choe Ryong-hae, a veteran statesman with no military experience, has also been appointed head of the KPA's political branch and is assuming an increasing share of the portfolio traditionally overseen by generals.
The real question, then, is not whether Ri's sacking and Kim Jong-un's ascension alongside the WPK were deliberate political moves- it seems almost certain that this is the case- but rather: what is Kim Jong-un hoping to accomplish by diminishing the power of the KPA?
Some observers have painted this as an unremarkable power grab that any good autocrat would make in Kim's situation. He is young, new to the job, and may simply be ousting potential threats while elevating himself and his friends. Choe Ryong-hae is, by many accounts, a close personal friend of the Kim family. Ri was powerful and famous, and Kim may not have been comfortable with that. This interpretation implies minimal repercussions beyond matters of 'who sits where,' as the decline of the old guard would not indicate a changing attitude towards the generals in politics, but would simply be the function of Kim's non-military background. North Korea's domestic and foreign policy would not necessarily be affected by a maneuver simply designed to remove rivals and reward friends.
Yet, those painting this as a transparent and simple power grab may be mistaken. True, the rise of Kim and his non-military supporters unarguably establishes dominance over the KPA, but such dominance might not be sought purely for its own sake. Rather, Kim may hope to leverage this dominance to facilitate political reforms that the military has hitherto fiercely opposed.
One sign supporting this interpretation is that Kim Jong-un himself has hinted that he intends to reform. He has issued statements promising an end to austerity and hunger. The implausibility of such sweeping promises aside, these comments can be taken as an indication of Kim's intent.
There is also the enduring and desperate need for reform to consider. North Korea is incredibly poor and isolated. China is its only ally, without which it likely would have collapsed by now. While the internal workings of the country are shrouded in mystery, enough knowledge exists to argue that the current regime secures its position through the use of deception and propaganda so extreme that it could easily be described as 'Orwellian.' Creation myths of their leaders' divine births and government-circulated tales of malevolent forces looming outside their borders are just some of the tools used to maintain control.
It would not take an especially liberally-minded leader to shy away from such an extreme form of totalitarianism. Any reasonable person can see that a country simply cannot function for long with a starving and intellectually shackled population. Kim Jong-il, by all accounts, was not a reasonable person, and the combination of eccentricity and his singular grasp on power can explain the dreadful conditions of his reign. But Kim Jong-un is not his father. He has not yet shown much of himself to the world, but he is a young, Western-educated child of the information age. Moreover, with nearby Myanmar setting an example by taking steps to democratize and liberalize what had been described as the most closed-off economy on the planet, it seems perfectly possible that Kim Jong-un intends to attempt a minor reform program at the very least.
A further question is how the military intends to respond. If Kim continues to push them, will things reach a point where they will push back? It is difficult to imagine how the KPA could openly oppose Kim Jong-un. Rule of North Korea relies so heavily on the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family that has been established over generations. Without the personal legitimacy of Kim Jong-un and his lineage, the military might find itself with very little support indeed. It seems likely that it would take much more provocation for the KPA to expose itself to the risks of open defiance. Thus, the fallout from this purge will remain small enough to escape the prying eyes of the outside world.
Zak Rose is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com