NK Leadership Chess: 2012 Year-in-Review

2012 was a major success for Pyongyang, with Kim Jong Un successfully taking on all of the positions formerly held by his father
January 7th, 2013
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The year 2012 was a momentous one for the North Korean leadership, as power was successfully transferred from father to son for a second time in the country’s history. There were a number of major events, including a massive ceremony (and failed rocket launch) in April to mark the hundredth birthday of Kim Il Sung, a Party Conference and Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) meeting in April, the removal of Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho from all his positions in July, a highly unusual second SPA meeting in September, and a successful rocket launch in December, as well as major personnel shuffles throughout the year.

When the year began, there were more than a few analysts (myself included) who questioned whether the regime could successfully pull off the succession process; questions revolved around whether Dear Respected Kim Jong Un was too young and inexperienced to possibly take over. Some analysts went so far as to say that North Korea would collapse – unless it basically became another province of China. In the end, this year must be looked at as a major success for the regime, at least from what outsiders can see. Not only did Kim Jong Un take on all of the positions formerly held by his father, but he was able to put his stamp on the regime with personnel moves in the military and security services.

Leadership Shuffle

Making use of the NK News North Korea Leadership Tracker, one can see the rise and fall of a number of key players within the regime. Below is the list of the elites who accompanied Kim Jong Un the most (over 20%) in both the first half of the year and second half:

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The most obvious absence from the first half to the second is Ri Yong Ho, the Chief of the KPA General Staff who was removed in July from all posts. Ri was expected to play a major role after the death of Kim Jong Il, especially since it was rumored that he had taken Kim Jong Un under his wing for military affairs during the succession. However, it is notable that a number of other military officials also appeared with Kim far less in the second half (Kim Yong Chun, Kim Jong Gak, Pak Jae Gyong, Kim Won Hong and Kim Myong Guk). Of those, Kim Yong Chun was demoted from Minister of the People’s Armed Forces to Director of the Workers’ Party Civil Defense Department, and Kim Jong Gak was also removed from his position as Minister of the People’s Armed Forces (his new position is unknown).

Another notable difference is that nine of the top fourteen elites in the second half are members of the Secretariat (Choe Ryong Hae, Kim Ki Nam, Kim Yang Gon, Kim Kyong Hui, Mun Kyong Dok, Choe Thae Bok, Pak To Chun, Kim Phyong Hae and Kim Yong Il) compared to three of the top fifteen in the first half. This is another indication of a trend laid out in a previous NK News piece – the continued reemergence of the Workers’ Party, especially following the 4th Party Conference in April. The move away from the military’s primacy to a more party-centered regime began in the late period of Kim Jong Il’s regime, but picked up speed in Kim Jong Un’s first year. This was especially noticeable because of how different it was from when Kim Jong Il took over from his father. The most likely reason is that when Kim Jong Il took over the military was the only institution that continued to function in the country, leaving him very little choice but to rely on them for stability. It is interesting to note that when Kim Jong Il took over there were major purges within the security services, while the military leadership was (relatively) spared. Since Kim Jong Un took over the opposite has occurred, with major shakeups within the military, while the security services have become more prominent.

An additional way to observe elite movement over the past year is to look at the elite “rankings” (what order they were listed in) at major events. The following table looks at the rankings from an event at the beginning of the year, shortly after the 4th Party Conference, and end of the year.

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The elites who rose most in the rankings from January to December are Choe Ryong Hae (+15), Jang Song Thaek (+9) and Pak To Chun (+7), while the one who fell most (without being removed) is Kim Yong Chun (-7). Jang Song Thaek is particularly interesting since, while he was thought to be the right hand man to Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, he always held a surprisingly low formal ranking. However, in December he moved past his wife, Kim Kyong Hui, and the new Chief of the KPA General Staff Hyon Yong Chol, and now sits at #5 in the regime behind Choe Ryong Hae. This comes at the same time that Alexandre Mansourov suggests Jang might be trying to build his own institutional base within the country, through his new post as chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission. This is in addition to the considerable power he wields as head of the Party Administration Department, a Vice Chairman on the National Defense Commission, Full Member of the Politburo and member of the Central Military Commission.

The removals are also very telling. In addition to the aforementioned Ri Yong Ho and Kim Jong Gak, U Tong Chuk, who was First Vice Minister of State Security, was also widely expected to play an important role in the Kim Jong Un regime, but disappeared before the 4th Party Conference and was removed from all his previous posts. In addition, Ri Yong Mu and O Kuk Ryol, both Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission and heavily tied to the Kim family, have not been seen since statues of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung were erected at the military college. Their removal, if confirmed, would be further proof that the old guard is being rapidly shifted out.

Kim Jong Un’s Appearances

(Note: June featured only one appearance and has been combined with July)

The year began with Kim Jong Un undertaking an one hundred day formal mourning period for his father, considerably shorter than the three-year mourning period that Kim Jong Il undertook when his father, Kim Il Sung, died. However, unlike his father during his own mourning period, Kim Jong Un attended numerous events between January 1st and March 25th, when the mourning period ended; this was one of the first indications that the regime would handle this succession much differently than the last one.  There also appeared to be a conscious effort to build up Kim Jong Un’s stature with the military, as 21 of the 34 events he attended were military in nature. It was during the mourning period that rumors spread about military and government officials being executed for showing an insufficient amount of respect, and one KPA General was reported to have been executed by mortar fire for drinking. The mourning period activities therefore showed respect for the military, but also sent a firm message about who was in charge.

Shortly after the end of the mourning period, a number of major events happened in rapid succession: the 4th Workers’ Party Conference, a Supreme People’s Assembly meeting and the failed launch of the Kwangmyongsong-3 rocket. The 4th Party Conference led to large amount of turnover within the party apparatus, with ten members being added to the Politburo and six members being removed. The biggest addition was clearly Kim Jong Un taking over as a member of the Presidium (Standing Committee) of the Politburo, as well as the newly created position of First Secretary (Kim Jong Il was made eternal General Secretary).

Following the Party Conference, the number of military appearances Kim made went down noticeably – with the exception of August, immediately following the removal of Ri Yong Ho. However, Kim also did not make many economic appearances throughout the year, only 17 / 167, leaving those inspections to Premier Choe Yong Rim. This has led some to speculate that Kim is trying to distance himself in case the North experiences another year of lackluster economic performance. Instead, Kim made a number of appearances at venues meant to show how much he cares about the people of North Korea – a dolphinarium, the Mangyongdae, Kaeson Youth and Taesongsan Funfairs, open-air ice rinks and roller-skating grounds, and the recently opened Changjon Street apartments.

The focal point at the end of the year was the successful second launch of the Kyongmyongsong-3 rocket, which was used to show the genius of Kim Jong Un. The successful launch likely helped solidify Kim’s grip on power (and probably saved one or two heads from rolling). The day after the successful launch, KCNA released a photo of Kim at the launch site, supposedly guiding the entire thing. In the days that followed, there were a number of banquets and other events held for the scientists and technicians (some of which Kim attended with his wife).

Break from the Kim Jong Il Period

In the end, perhaps the most fascinating development of the first year of the Kim Jong Un regime was the way it subtly broke from the Kim Jong Il era. Instead, the regime focused on drawing attention to the relation between Kim Jong Un and Kim Il Sung, right down to Kim Jong Un’s appearance. Kim Jong Un presented himself as a “man of the people,” and propaganda photos showed him closely interacting with soldiers and regular citizens just as his grandfather used to do. The introduction of Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, also seems to have been intended to make him more relatable and likeable.

Kim Jong Un also seems to have moved away from the military-first (songun) policy instituted by his father, and more towards what Charles Armstrong has called a “neo-Juche” policy / philosophy similar to his grandfather. There are likely two reasons for this; one is that the Kim Il Sung period represents the “glory days” of the North Korean regime, and Kim Il Sung had much greater revolutionary legitimacy than Kim Jong Il ever could. On the flip side, Kim Jong Il’s rule started with a horrific famine and featured sluggish economic growth and a much more aloof ruling style.

What to Look for in 2013

The biggest questions in 2013, as far as leadership is concerned, will surround the state and government officials, especially with a number of them filled by holdovers from the Kim Jong Il period. Kim Yong Nam, who has been President of the SPA (nominally the head of state) since 1998, and Choe Yong Rim, Premier since 2010, are quite old and prime candidates to be gently eased out of the leadership (a purge is unlikely). Who replaces them may tell us much about what the regime plans to accomplish. For example, replacing Choe Yong Rim with a more reform-oriented elite, like Pak Pong Ju, will likely be an indication that the regime intends to try and implement economic reforms. In addition, if Kim Jong Un were to replace Kim Yong Nam (a possibility put forward by Alexander Mansourov) it could be an indication that he eventually wants to rule as a popularly elected (even nominally so) official. Such a move would serve as another break from the Kim Jong Il period.

Of course, how the military is handled will also be of major importance. Though another major shakeup a la Ri Yong Ho would be surprising, there is likely to be more shuffling at the lower levels as Kim Jong Un installs officials that he feels are absolutely loyal to him.