North Korean power shuffle no surprise, by Gwynne Dyer

[Although the title highlights the recent dismissal of KPA chief Vice-marshal Ri Yong Ho, this opinion piece by Canadian columnist Gwynne Dyer compares Kim Jong Un’s hereditary accession to leadership in the DPRK to the likely scenario of another hereditary leader becoming the next president of South Korea. Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. –CanKor]

What has been happening in North Korea recently is straight out of the Hereditary Dictatorship for Dummies handbook. Kim Jong-un, the pudgy young heir to the leadership of one of the world’s last Communist states, is removing powerful people who were loyal to his father and replacing them with men (it’s always men) who owe their advancement only to him.

Vice-Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the chief of the North Korean army until late last week, was not disloyal to the new boss. On the contrary, Ri’s support was vital in ensuring a smooth transition after the death of Kim Jong-Il, the old boss, and he gave it unstintingly. But in the end the vice-marshal didn’t owe everything to Kim Jong-un, so he had to go.

In his place, Kim Jong-un has promoted a man nobody had ever heard of before. His name is Hyon Yong-chol, but you don’t have to remember it unless you really want to. The point is that Hyon will have annoyed a lot of other generals in the army because he has been promoted over their heads, and so he is absolutely dependent on the good will of the young master. Read the rest of this entry »

North Korea’s Ideology after April 2012: Continuity or Disruption? by Ruediger Frank

[Earlier this year we alerted readers to a “Political Tour” to the DPRK, which was to include Economy Professor Ruediger Frank as a guide. CanKor Brain Trust member Ruediger Frank has now returned from that tour. The following article, first published by our partner-site 38North, includes some of Frank’s initial impressions, these having to do with what might be signs of an ideological shift. Find more articles by Ruediger Frank here. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. –CanKor]


Until the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, the big question affecting nearly every aspect of North Korean affairs—domestic or international—was who would be his successor. Now that this issue has been resolved by the selection and promotion of Kim Jong Un, the focus has shifted to the nature and sustainability of the new leadership. The four mega-events in April 2012 were supposed to provide insights: a Worker’s Party Conference, a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, a missile/rocket/satellite launch, and the long-prepared celebrations of Eternal President Kim Il Sung’s centenary birthday. We could indeed observe dramatic changes, particularly in the DPRK’s ideology—a field that Kim Jong Il in 1995 described as the key frontier in the defense of socialism (Korean style).

This article is based on my personal observations during a visit to North Korea from April 10-16, 2012, as well as official DPRK material, and addresses the question: Are recent ideological changes just a regular progression in a linear, continuous development, or do they mark a major disruption?

New Developments in Ideology

It did not take long to notice the first of these seemingly dramatic changes when I arrived at the Sunan Airport in Pyongyang. I am not talking about the new terminal(s) or the masses of foreigners who flooded into the hopelessly overwhelmed country. Rather, it was the badges worn by North Koreans that caught my attention. These badges portraying a smiling Kim Il Sung have long been a subject of curiosity and, at times, ridicule by foreigners. Questions about their shape and size (do specific badges indicate importance?), rules for wearing (do they even put them on their swimsuits?), and availability (they can’t be bought, they can only be bestowed upon you) have been the subject of many tourist conversations, in particular over beer in the evening. But for someone like me who has been to North Korea frequently since 1991, I hardly notice the badges anymore. Neither do the North Koreans. For decades, the badges have been a part of the system’s iconography, just like the various Kim Il Sung statues in Pyongyang and across the country.

Figure1: North Korea's New Leadership Badge (photo by Rudiger Frank)

Figure1: North Korea’s New Leadership Badge (photo by Rudiger Frank)

And now this: an unusually large badge with not just one, but two faces! Father Kim Il Sung and son Kim Jong Il, happily united against the background of a dynamically flying red flag. This theme—father and son replacing what used to be reserved for Kim Il Sung only—repeated itself on numerous occasions throughout my journey. Among the most widely noticed examples were the two statues on Mansudae Hill in Pyongyang, unveiled in a grand ceremony on April 13. Read the rest of this entry »

38 North: Hereditary Succession in North Korea: Lessons of the Past, by Charles Armstrong

[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is by Charles Armstrong. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

North Korea’s transition to third-generation Kim leadership appears to be going smoothly, indeed much more smoothly than many outside observers had expected. This should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the history of the DPRK, which ceased to be a “normal” communist dictatorship decades ago, and instead became a regime of hereditary leadership, firmly centred on the Kim family. The question was never whether or not a son of Kim Jong Il would become leader after Kim’s death, but which son it would be. As Kim Jong Il’s own rise to power shows us, leadership succession in the DPRK is not based on hereditary privilege alone. Kim Jong Il had to prove his ability and his loyalty, and to compete with other contenders for the throne from within the Kim family. Kim Jong Il’s most serious competitor appears to have been his uncle, Kim Il Sung’s younger brother Kim Yŏng Ju. Ultimately Kim Jong Il won out in this intra-familial power struggle and gained the support of his father for succession in the early 1970s, when he was around 30 years old, roughly the same age Kim Il Sung was when he became North Korea’s leader in 1945 and that Kim Jong Un is now.

By the 1970s, North Korea had become a family state unlike any other in the communist world. The DPRK in this respect was more like Saudi Arabia or a Gulf Emirate state than East Germany or Vietnam. Closer to home geographically if not ideologically, Taiwan and Singapore both saw transfers of power from their founding leaders to their sons in the 1980s and 1990s. But among communist states, which generally decried hereditary succession as “feudal” (as did North Korea itself until hereditary succession became official policy), the Kim family’s inter-generational power transfer was unique. Perhaps the Ceausescu family of Romania came close to such a monopoly of power toward the end of the communist regime there—Elena Ceausescu was allegedly slated to succeed her husband before their execution in 1989—but Nikolai Ceausescu had long been inspired by Kim Il Sung’s leadership style, not excluding familial rule. Read the rest of this entry »

Party Time in Pyongyang, by Aidan Foster-Carter

[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by long-time CanKor friend and contributor Aiden Foster-Carter. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

As I write this article, April is already more than half over. In North Korea, the party is over, bar the shouting. But in Pyongyang, the shouting never really stops, or not for long anyway.

Kim Jong Un waves to the masses during the military parade commemorating Kim Il Sung’s centenary birthday. (Photo: AP)

True, this event-packed month is not quite done yet. The April 28 Spring Friendship Art Festival still has a few days to run, bringing to the good people of Pyongyang such cultural delights as the Trumpet Ensemble of Belarus. Not forgetting the song and dance troupe of the General Political Department of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. (Catchy name!)

Lest you imagine this has anything to do with art, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) was commendably candid. Announcing the festival on March 29, KCNA hailed the “over 50 art troupes from 20 odd countries… Their performances will be devoted to praising President Kim Il Sung, revered as the sun of Juche by the world progressives.” That surely can’t apply to the Festival’s most unlikely performers: the Sons of Jubal, a 150-strong male chorus who are all Baptist music ministers from Georgia (the US state, not the country). So much for aesthetics.

One important date yet to come is April 25. That’s Army Day, which this year marks the 80th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Like much in the DPRK’s official history, this is fiction. The real KPA wasn’t formed until 1948, on February 8. That was the date they celebrated until 1978, when it got pushed back to mark instead the supposed founding of Kim Il Sung’s tiny guerrilla band in 1932. In North Korea, after all, myth rules.

Just in case the rumors are right and the DPRK is contemplating a nuclear test to compensate for the failed rocket launch on April 13, then April 25 might be deemed an appropriate date for it. But this article lays off the rocketry, amply covered by 38 North of late, to look instead at the politics which unfolded in Pyongyang last week. What happened, and what have we learned? Read the rest of this entry »

North Korea in April: Defining the Future Under Kim Jong Un by Ruediger Frank

[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by CanKor Brain Trust member Ruediger Frank. Find more articles by Ruediger Frank here. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

April 2012 promises to be an interesting month for North Korea and its observers, with at least four mega-events. The long announced celebrations to mark the 100th birthday of the country’s late founder Kim Il Sung will be held on the April 15. Two days before, the annual session of the Supreme People’s Assembly (the North Korean parliament) will convene. The fourth Conference of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) will take place on the 11th. Last, but not least, around the same time a rocket launch that has been criticized by the West as a missile test is set to take place.

April 15, 1912 was not only the day the Titanic sank. In a small village near Pyongyang, a boy with the name Kim Song Ju was born. Later, much like Lenin (Uljanow) and Stalin (Tschugaschwili), he adapted an alias. In October 1945, by then called Kim Il Sung, the 33 year old youngster was presented to the wondering population by the Soviets as the liberator of the country from the Japanese. Hardly anybody took the young man seriously back then, neither his Soviet protectors nor his much more numerous, senior, powerful and experienced domestic political competitors. They were wrong, as they later learned the hard way. By building and breaking alliances, first the Christians and then rival factions within the Korean Communist camp were eliminated or assimilated, until Kim Il Sung and his Kapsan guerilla faction had acquired a monopoly of power within the KWP.

Kim Il Sung smartly used the badly failed Korean War (1950-53) not only as a welcome occasion to eliminate some of his influential political foes. He also converted Korea into one of the hot spots of the Cold War and was thus able to force the Soviet Union and China to provide much more economic, military and political aid than either of them had originally intended. The costs for Mao Zedong included his eldest son Anying, still buried in North Korea. Even my home country East Germany, laying in ruins after World War II and the post-1945 demounting policy of the Soviets, and facing fierce competition from West Germany which prospered under the Marshall Plan, felt compelled to rebuild North Korea’s second largest city, Hamhung, at an enormous cost. Read the rest of this entry »

Ottawa Round Table Part 4 – CanKor Brain Trust on the Current Situation in the DPRK

CanKor Brain Trust on the Current Situation in the DPRK

by Paul Evans, Victor Hsu, Hazel Smith, Hark Kroll, Jeremy Paltiel and Jack Kim

Ottawa Round Table on Humanitarian Aid in the Current North Korean Context, 5 March 2012

Q: What dangers and opportunities can you foresee in the evolving situation?

Paul Evans, Professor, Liu Institute for Global Issues; Director, Institute of Asian Research, UBC:

Why assume that the KJU era will be any different? My only glimpse into the fog is the signal from the group that attended the six-month training program here that it was business as usual for a second phase, with no changes expected. I had dinner with a DPRK diplomat in Bangkok as part of an ARF meeting and more or less out of the blue he asked me how the UBC training program had gone and how we could find ways to get more DPRK students to Canada in future. Really out of context and it may be that he only guessed at a connection and my interest by seeing my card. But…

Victor Hsu, Visiting Professor, School of Public Policy and Management , Korea Development Institute (KDI), Seoul:

From my perspective, assuming that ROK maintains its current attempt to reverse the LMB policy, opportunities are going to increase. I don’t believe there will be any continuation of refusal to provide humanitarian aid. Both main parties in ROK are framing renewed engagement, as is the USA. EU will follow suit.

Hazel Smith, Professor of Resilience and Security, Cranfield University, UK:

The DPRK government is far from unique in being culpable of poor governance and failing to meet the food needs of its people. Arguing that the DPRK humanitarian and food crises are unique is wrong in advocacy terms because it reinforces the politicisation of aid to the DPRK in its emphasis on the ‘exceptionally awful’ case of the DPRK.

The reasons for food shortages and economic failure in the DPRK are prosaic. Like very large numbers of governments, the DPRK government lacks oil (to generate revenue), suffered the withdrawal of external subsidies, has an obsolescent economic infrastructure in every respect, and is governed by a non-democratic, economically illiterate and inept government. Read the rest of this entry »

North Korea’s dynastic succession by Bruce Cumings

[When North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, died, there was widespread concern about the consequences, especially in North America. A long-time friend of CanKor, Bruce Cumings is not surprised that the succession to the son, Kim Jong Un has proceeded smoothly. He does not expect the country to collapse, implode or explode. The succession, he notes, appears to be safe, and may last a long time. Bruce Cumings is chairman of the History Department at the University of Chicago and the author, most recently, of The Korean War: a History (Random House Modern Library, 2010). His analysis of the DPRK leadership succession was published in Le Monde Diplomatique on 7 February 2012. –CanKor]

Framed pictures as they appear on North Korean walls (photo by Erich Weingartner)

I was in Singapore when Kim Jong-il died on 17 December, so I was reading from a salutary distance what passed for expert American commentary. “North Korea as we know it is over,” according to a piece in The New York Times written by a specialist who had served in the George W Bush administration; the country would come apart within weeks or months. Another asked how could the callow son grapple with octogenarian leaders in the army — wouldn’t there be a coup? Might Kim Jong-un “lash out” to prove his toughness to the military? Others worried that a collapse might require US Marines on Okinawa to swoop in to corral loose nukes (a key mission for several years).

The Obama administration fretted about a power struggle, something Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had spoken of after Kim’s stroke three years earlier. The model seemed to be the USSR after Stalin died, or China after Mao. They ignored what happened when Kim Il-sung died in 1994 — which was nothing. Read the rest of this entry »

38 North: North Korea after Kim Jong Il: The Risks of Improvisation by Rudiger Frank

[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by CanKor Brain Trust member Rudiger Frank, Professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna. Please follow our link to this article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

Kim Jong Il’s death was announced less than three weeks ago. But the world is surprisingly quickly getting used to the new leadership in North Korea, as if there were no concerns left at all. To provide a counterweight to this amazingly complacent mood, and the many speculations about a stable North Korean future (including my own), I’d like to play devil’s advocate and ponder a relatively pessimistic scenario based on my reading of some developments that should be watched carefully.

We do have reason to believe that the current course of events related to succession in North Korea is more of the improvisation type than the outcome of a long-term strategy. In the end, it might indeed work and Kim Jong Un and the system will survive, but this is by no means to be taken for granted. Read the rest of this entry »

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