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Uncertainty lingers in North Korea one year after Kim took power

This undated photo released by the North’s Korea Central News Agency shows leader Kim Jong-un meeting scientists at its rocket launch site in Cheolsan, Pyeongan Province. (Yonhap News)
This undated photo released by the North’s Korea Central News Agency shows leader Kim Jong-un meeting scientists at its rocket launch site in Cheolsan, Pyeongan Province. (Yonhap News)

A year after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inherited power from his late father and longtime strongman Kim Jong-il, uncertainty still remains high over the future direction of the communist state.

With the emergence of the young, Swiss-educated ruler, the international community was cautiously hopeful of change. But the expectation was dampened as Kim carried out long-range rocket launches in April and last week at the expense of its starving people and in defiance of international warnings.

Since late June, Pyongyang has shown signs of leaning toward economic reform. But there has been no significant improvement in its moribund economy with little help from Seoul and Washington and apparently less largesse from its patron China.

“Kim Jong-un’s first year has heightened uncertainty about the future of the DPRK (North Korea). His youth and open style elevated expectations for reform, but tangible signs of economic liberalization or political openness are hard to find,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“His inexperience, need to consolidate legitimacy and power, and the preexisting military-first policy have contributed to a dangerous and unsustainable course of policy. These tendencies are increasing potential volatility on the peninsula.”

The 20-something-year-old leader took the helm of the North upon his father’s death on Dec. 17, only after several years of grooming. He was tapped as successor in early 2009 after his father suffered a stroke the previous year.

Kim took all top posts in the ruling party, state and military in April, showing off the seemingly smooth power succession process. But below the surface, uncertainty has deepened over the veiled leadership, experts noted.

Kim has recently purged and demoted a number of top military officers and replaced them with associates loyal to him. He has also tightened discipline in officialdom and a crackdown on dissidents ― a move some argue highlights Kim’s growing insecurity.

“Kim failed to establish a harmonious relationship with the military elites as he purged military commanders, and created and escalated tension with them,” said Ahn Chan-il, director of the World North Korea Research Center.

“Amid this, his reform drive has foundered. The North now praises itself for the successful rocket launch, but it only deepens its isolation with the international community discussing punitive measures against it.”

Some observers, however, painted a more positive outlook regarding the North’s economic reform and efforts to improve foreign relations as Kim will have more time to breathe considering that he has made progress on his power stabilization.

As China and the U.S. want a stable North Korea in order to focus on domestic challenges, the possibility is high that the mood for dialogue with the North will be forged next year, they noted.

But they did not rule out the possibility that Pyongyang could face further isolation should it carry out additional provocations such as a third nuclear test.

Power consolidation

For the past year, Kim has focused on consolidating his power through a variety of measures including a broad personnel reshuffle in the party and military with the help of his guardians such as Jang Song-thaek, husband of his aunt Kim Kyong-hui.

Kim has purged or demoted high-profile military figures such as former General Staff Chief Ri Yong-ho; and former People’s Armed Forces ministers Kim Jong-gak and Kim Yong-chun.

The move was largely seen as aimed at weakening the conservative military’s influence over state affairs and securing more flexibility in Kim’s reform drive.

Some analysts, however, said the move was not necessarily targeting figures who have accumulated political and economic power under the country’s military-first policy, but was rather a natural part of the power consolidation process.

Spurring Kim’s efforts to tighten his grip on the 1.2-million-strong military was Choe Ryong-hae, a civilian-turned-general and longtime aide to the Kim dynasty. His rank was recently downgraded to general from vice marshal for unknown reasons.

Regarded as one of Kim’s most trusted military figures, he currently heads the General Political Bureau, a powerful organ that oversees military personnel affairs, including promotion, position assignment and disciplinary action.

Choe had reportedly clashed with the ill-fated commander Ri as the military novice wields enormous power in the armed forces.

Unlike his father who called all the shots based on his charismatic leadership, Kim has relied on a systematic governing structure in the ruling Workers’ Party. Through constitutional revisions, his father normalized the ruling system for the inexperienced, untested leader as his health seriously deteriorated in 2008.

Kim currently serves as the first secretary general of the ruling party and chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission which oversees the armed services. In addition to party titles, he also is the first chairman of the National Defense Commission.

“His leadership on the surface has been quite stabilized as he normalized the function of the ruling party and held party meetings to determine state affairs,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

To shore up support from people, Kim has also focused on forging an image different from his father, who had devastated the economy and put the country under international isolation amid his push for nuclear arsenals.

In particular, he has sought to imitate gestures and appearances that conjured up the image of the national founder and his late grandfather Kim Il-sung for whom the grassroots still have considerable nostalgia.

Unlike his rather introverted father, he has tried harder to reach out to ordinary citizens and rank-and-file troops. His televised visits to kindergartens, child-care centers and amusement parks appeared designed to give him a more positive image that appeals to the public disgruntled over persisting poverty and suppression.

Reform and openness

During a ceremony marking the centennial birthday of the nation’s founder in April, he pledged not to make his people further tighten their belts, spawning much speculation that the new leader would take some bold steps toward economic reform.

Reports here said that under the so-called June 28 new economic management scheme, Pyongyang sought to partially renounce its centrally controlled system. They anticipated the scheme might be bolder than the reform introduced in July 2002.

Under the new measures, Pyongyang reportedly sought to give greater autonomy to state corporations, allowing them to choose their production items, prices, amounts and marketing methods. They were also said to allow farmers to take in some portions of their harvest.

But such measures do not seem to have been implemented on a full scale yet or forged any momentum for the country’s reform, observers said. Some said reform efforts might have been bogged down due to resistance from vested interests.

The government and military elites’ lack of desire for reform was partially attributable to Pyongyang’s failure to enhance its people’s livelihoods, said Ahn of the World North Korea Research Center.

“As its socialist system has reached its worst conditions, there was no motivation or energy to push for reform,” he said. “The authorities also lacked the willingness to accommodate people’s increasing desire for market activities amid deepening anxiety over the survival of the regime.”

Amid lackluster reform efforts, experts said the North could learn from Myanmar which has recently made strides toward reform and openness. The international community including the U.S. hailed the moves by lifting long-standing economic sanctions on the Southeast Asian state.

Deeper international isolation

Timed to coincide with the first anniversary of his father’s death and of his leadership, the successful launch of a long-range rocket last week has apparently served domestic purposes. Pyongyang has prompted the success as Kim’s major achievement. The launch has also helped rally the discontented people behind the young leader.

But the North now faces deeper isolation as the international community discusses punitive measures for the provocation, although it may think that the rocket launch could serve to raise the stakes in future negotiations with Washington.

“As the North has prioritized power consolidation, regime stabilization and national unity over the past year, it fired the rockets and strengthened a clampdown on North Korean refugees along the border with China,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University.

“All of this has led to deeper international isolation and criticism. The question remains over what kind of stance it will take over its nuclear and missile programs next year when new leaderships take office in neighboring states.”

As the launch came after China urged the North to cancel it, the incoming leadership led by Xi Jinping might feel unnerved that its calls for restraint were ignored.

Following the launch, Washington’s distrust toward the North has deepened. It came eight months after the North broke out of the so-called Leap Day deal with it by launching a long-range rocket in April.

Under the deal, Pyongyang agreed to put on ice its missile and nuclear tests in return for “nutritional assistance.” The North argues that it launched a scientific satellite ― a charge the U.S., the South and others dismiss as a disguise.

By Song Sang-ho (