Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington: The diplomatic circuit here has been suggesting during the past week that the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is easing up on military and foreign policy and even North Korea’s infamous totalitarian hard-line domestic controls. Could be? According to South Korean dips it really could be. Maybe. But more and immediately interesting is the speed at which the North Koreans have said No Way this is true.
Within 72 hours of this inside the beltway cocktail chatter a spokesman for the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea was heading for the state run news agency KCNA to remind everyone, including of course the North Korean people themselves, that the Young (but nevertheless Glorious Leader) Kim Jong Un had no intention of dropping the nation’s “military first” policy.
There was more to come from the stern spokesman: “The puppet group [as they call their never-never friends south of the border] tried to give the impression that the present leadership broke with the past. This is the height of ignorance. To expect policy change and reform and opening from the DPRK [North Korea] is nothing but a foolish and silly dream, just like wanting the sun to rise in the west.”
Then the punch-line: “There cannot be the slightest change in all policies.”
So that’s that then. Or is it? First we should understand that the word “reform” does not exist in the North Korean political lexicon. For it to do so would inspire too many hopes and therefore radicalism among the people, however unlikely that may appear.
Secondly, it would inspire internal, albeit secret, opposition within what’s left of the old guard nomenklatura that has so much to lose in reform and is systematically being culled by the real power behind the North Korean throne, Jang Song Taek (see below).
Thirdly, public declarations of reform would suggest weakness in the leader who has to be the guardian of the order perpetuated by his as yet more famous grandfather and father. Weakness is the other banned word.
So what inspires the South Korean speculation? After all, they have to be the closest to the instincts of the leadership above the 38th Parallel – that formidable line drawn in the sand when the war ended some seven decades ago without a peace agreement.
In tangible senses of movement, the South Koreans and to some extent the all-important Chinese wonder about the apparently ruthless way in which the power behind the Young Leader has started to clear out some of that apparently perpetual old guard, especially General Ri Yong Ho, the chief of the army and until now undoubtedly the most powerful man outside the leader himself.
The army is the single most important and obvious guarantor of state security. To remove the head of the army – even for, it is said, health reasons, must surely indicate an important power shift. After all, the general was the closest of confidants to the late leader Kim Jong Il and indeed one of the silent image-makers of the young Kim Jong Un.
Also out is U Dong Chuk, the first deputy director of State Security. Their going suggests a consolidation of power to the ever present uncle of Kim Jong Il – Jang Song Taek. He is the real power behind the clear-out – not the young leader.
Jang Song Taek is the eminence gris of North Korean politics and the transfer of power including the raising to the second highest military rank of a civilian supporter, Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, is within his gift. Moreover, it is the uncle who ordered that the token military status should be given to the leader with the raising to commander-in-chief status of Kim Jong Un himself.
The other aspect stretching the minds of Korea watchers is the social style of the leader. He is more relaxed and the state system seems to be fostering the younger and free thinking image of this 28 year-old. Certainly the camera and photo-ops of the leader as he reaches out to the public at fun things such as fairs and carnivals (however contrived) are totally state controlled. He is portrayed as what he is, a 20 something. In the very recent past the DPRK leadership was not seen in this style. The biggest change of course is the appearance of Kim Jong Un’s wife of perhaps three years, Ri Sol Ju. North Korea has a photogenic First Lady – that’s a first indeed.
So can we trust outsider analysis that times, they are a’changing in North Korea? Changes in North Korea cannot be seen in such simple terms.
North Korea is in part starving especially after the summer droughts when the harvest perished in many regions. That cannot change in months, years even a decade. Kim Jong Il promised the people prosperity. That’s an impossible promise to keep and oppressed populations only have short term hopes. Could there be a revolution? No. North Korean society is not organised for revolution. There are no middle class intellectual groupings and security is not second rate.
What about outside influences? The biggest is China. Beijing is North Korea’s bank manager. The Chinese, theoretically, have the most influence on the path North Korea follows – that has been the case for decades.
On the circuit here in Washington, the Chinese are staying out of the whispering game. They know full well that changes have to take place in North Korea, not because it is time to do so, but because the economic necessity and opportunity are there now that will not usurp the authority of the new leadership. That is the real story and reality of change. It is not about relaxing or mood swing in policies. Whatever emerges is not coming out of a hand-clapping speech. It does not need to.
Of course, there is one unspoken topic that no one fantasises about: nuclear weapons. North Korea is not going to put that development on hold. After all, it is the one reason that everyone – including China and the US – is now forced to take North Korea so seriously. It keeps everyone on their toes – hence the cocktail chatter inside the big power beltways especially among the vulnerable South Koreans and Japanese who are eye-ball-to-eye-ball with their cousins in the north. That’s not going to change for years to come.