Argument

An Army of Un

Is North Korea's new leader putting the country's powerful military in its place?

KNS/AFP/GettyImages
KNS/AFP/GettyImages

For photos of Kim Jong Un in his new role as leader, click here. 

On Wednesday, North Korea announced that the country’s leader Kim Jong Un had been given the title of marshal, a move that immediately followed the Sunday surprise announcement that powerful Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho had been removed from his posts. Before being promoted to chief of the General Staff, and then the Politburo in 2010, Ri had run the Pyongyang Defense Command, an army unit responsible for regime security. It’s a sensitive job that requires the absolute trust of the Kim family.

The 69-year-old Ri, officially dismissed "for his illness," received just a four-sentence goodbye in KCNA, North Korea’s official news agency. In what might have been an additional slap in the face, the announcement failed to mention highlights from Ri’s 52 years of service in the North Korean military, standard for dismissals.

Pyongyang watchers have been busy speculating what this news means for North Korea. Some analysts believe it’s a power play by the 28- or 29-year-old Kim Jong Un to re-assert control over the military; a move by his powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek to eliminate a rival; or even the result of a policy dispute. North Korea’s maddeningly opaque palace politics make it impossible to draw any easy conclusions from Ri’s sacking; additionally, the title marshal is redundant, given that Kim is already the supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army. But a possible interpretation is that Kim is finally distancing itself from the regime’s most powerful institution: its military.

Since he took power in December 2011 after the death of his father Kim Jong Il, the younger Kim has moved quickly to establish his military bona fides: he presided over military exercises, hobnobbed with high ranking generals, and inspected military bases. But in April, Pyongyang watchers began to see signs that Kim Jong Un might support a policy shift away from the "military first" policy that was the hallmark of his father’s tenure. The day after its failed missile launch, the regime revised its constitution to proclaim North Korea a "nuclear state." The move could signify that Pyongyang believes it has achieved a viable deterrent, thus securing Kim Jong Il’s legacy and allowing the regime to justify reallocating resources away from the military.

During his first national address on April 15, marking the 100th anniversary of his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birth, Kim Jong Un gave obligatory praise to the military first policy while stressing the economy and improving people’s lives as top priorities. (By contrast, the only known words Kim Jong Il ever said in public were "Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People’s Army!") After Kim Jong Un’s speech, where he said "the time has gone forever when enemies threatened and intimidated us with atomic bombs," North Korean media began to stress that Kim Jong Il had developed the country’s defense capabilities enough to allow his son to promise a future where the population would no longer have to "tighten its belts." It was a starkly different message from the 1990s, when resources flowed to the defense sector while a devastating famine killed up to 3.5 million people, or as much as 15 percent of the population.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Kim Jong Un is often photographed visiting military installations and palling around with soldiers, ostensibly to show his dedication to keeping North Korea safe. But in general, the younger Kim’s propaganda campaigns appear to focus more on his desire to improve people’s standards of living. In April, he criticized officials for their "pathetic" management of a Pyongyang amusement park. He also called publicly on the Cabinet and State Planning Commission to devise a plan that would require "vast resources, facilities, and funds" to deal with the challenges of land management. He has made no similar call on defense spending. In April, the country’s rubber stamp legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly, kept defense spending at 15.8 percent of total state budget, a figure that has not changed for four years.

In late May, a sign of discontent appeared in the pages of the North Korean Workers’ Party newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun. Entitled "Firm Guarantee for Defending the Country’s Sovereignty and Right to Exist," the article said, "Reinforcing military power … is not as easy and simple as it sounds. Funds, as well as up-to-date technology, are necessary." This is not unprecedented; in the mid 2000s, North Korean media also hosted a subtle guns-vs.-butter debate, which coincided with very limited market reforms. But the May 30 article, which seemed to take direct aim at a policy initiative pushed by the country’s new leader, most likely had the backing of a faction or factions within the regime. It’s unclear whether Ri was responsible for this shot across the bow, though the sentiment expressed in the article dovetails with warnings the Ri-led General Staff has made in the past.

Yet Kim Jong Un seems unmoved by these rumblings of discontent. Over the past two months, he has stepped up his high-profile activities designed to focus attention on the economy and domestic policy. His actions have stressed the importance of keeping up with "global trends" in the areas of technology and light industry. In early July, he appeared in the audience of a performance featuring Disney characters, which appeared to be an endorsement of Western culture. A week later, Ri was gone.

This narrative is, of course, educated guesswork based on very limited information. It’s too early to tell conclusively whether Ri’s dismissal and Kim’s actions signify a move away from the military. As the transition of power plays out in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un and his supporters will need to craft an image that signals that he is both his own man and a visionary able to step into the shoes of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. But to do it, he’ll need to deal with his father’s military first.

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