SEOUL – North Korea has acquired a new Armed Forces minister, the third in a less than a year, but not much is known about General Jang Jong Nam who replaced Kim Kyok Sik, widely believed to be a person behind the shelling of Yeonpyong Island and the sinking of a South Korean corvette in 2010.
The sudden promotion of Jang Jong Nam (or the sudden dismissal of Kim Kyok Sik) reminds us that the North Korean military is now in the midst of a major purge, with little precedents in the country’s history.
While the purge is likely to be driven by the civilian and party bureaucrats, their goals and motivations are still not clear.
A HISTORY OF PURGES
The North Korean military is no stranger to purges and mysterious disappearances of prominent generals, but what has happened over the last years or so has been unprecedented in the country’s history.
This ongoing military reshuffle ranks as one of the top three purges to which the North Korean armed forces have ever been subjected.
The first (and arguably the largest) military purge happened in the late 1950s. It was a part of a broader campaign which Kim Il Sung then waged against party and military leaders with excessive Soviet and Chinese connections.
Contrary to the later myths, the North Korean military in the 1950s was dominated not by Kim Il Sung’s ex-guerrillas (there were too few of them, and most of them had only limited experience of regular warfare), but by ethnic Koreans from China, most of whom were officers of the Chinese Communist forces prior to 1945-1950.
These people became the target if purges, with some 100 generals and senior officers being court-martialled for the alleged participation in an anti-government conspiracy.
The vast majority of people purged in the late 1950s had either Chinese or Soviet connections and hence could be seen as possible agents of foreign influence.
“Now, in May 2013, the Civilian Four are doing fine, but the Military Four have disappeared”
The reasons behind the next series of purges, in 1968-70, are much more murky. Most of the victims in the late 1960s were generals who had connections with the so-called Kapsan faction within the party leadership.
The list of the unlucky generals included the then National Defence Minister Kim Chang Bong who disappeared in 1969 together with a number of his subordinates as well as his predecessor Kim Kwang Hyop.
THE MILITARY FOUR HAVE GONE, THE CIVILIAN FOUR LIVE ON
In December 2011, eight people walked next to a 1974 Lincoln which was used as a hearse for the recently deceased Marshal (soon to be posthumously promoted to Generalissimo) Kim Jong Il: four top civilian bureaucrats on the right and four top military leaders on the left.
Now, in May 2013, the Civilian Four are doing fine, but the Military Four have disappeared.
Although he lost his position nonetheless, only one of the Military Four is known to still be alive and not in complete disgrace.
His name is Kim Yong Chun and, at the time of Kim Jong Il’s funeral, he was the first deputy Armed Forces minister. He was retired from the military in April 2012, and is now responsible for civil defence nationwide.
This is a significant demotion.
Nothing is known about the current fate of the remaining three. One of the generals was Kim Chong Kak who, in 2011, was the first deputy head of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Political Department, i.e. the top representative of the Party in the military.
In November 2012 he was replaced, never to be seen or heard of again.
The third man near the hearse was U Tong Chik, the first deputy minister of state security. Since at the time the ministerial position was vacant, he was the acting head of North Korea’s security police, intelligence and counterespionage service.
He disappeared in April 2012.
The most prominent of the Military Four was Ri Yong Ho, then chief of North Korea’s general staff, widely seen as one of the unofficial ‘regents’ to the young leader. In July 2012 the North Korean media reported that an extended Politburo session relieved Ri of his duties, and nothing has been heard about him since. There are rumours about him being killed or imprisoned, although these rumours are not particularly reliable.
Within just one year the entire top military leadership was purged. But the purge went much deeper than that – a number of commanders of the lower levels also lost their jobs, being replaced by the younger and somewhat obscure generals or even by life-long party officials who suddenly got a military commission (a typical case being Choe Ryong Hae, the head KPA General Political Department).
YO-YO RANKS FOR YO-YO GENERALS
Even stranger things have happened. In December 2012, Choe Ryong Hae, the above-mentioned head of the KPA General Political Department, suddenly appeared in public wearing a four-star general uniform.
It was a demotion from the rank of vice-marshal he had been promoted to a few months earlier. Just before that, Hyon Yong Chol, another vice-marshal, also had his rank lowered. Hyon had been appointed chief of North Korea’s general staff after Ri Yong Ho’s mysterious disappearance.
“One of few things we can say with a measure of certainty is that the North Korean armed forces are in political retreat”
Both Choe and Hyon hold their position, in spite of demotion. More surprisingly, however, Choe Ryong Hae was soon reinstated to the rank of vice-marshal while Hyon Yong Chol was not.
And, finally, North Korea now has its third Armed Forces minister in less than a year. Jang Jong Nam replaced Kim Kyok Sik who himself recently assumed the position in August 2012.
WHAT’S BEHIND ALL THIS?
But what does all this mean? How can we make sense of these demotions, promotions and disappearances? The answer to this question is necessarily speculative.
One of few things we can say with a measure of certainty is that the North Korean armed forces are in political retreat, being pushed aside by the civilian bureaucracy, largely embodied in Jang Song Taek and other old Party hands.
It is unknown, however, to what extent these conflicts are driven by personal rivalry, and to what extent this ongoing game of military musical chairs reflects internal disagreement about the country’s future course.
Most of the purged generals have been seen as hard-liners, so one can even interpret the current developments as an attempt to clear the ground for change.
The supporting evidence, however, is dangerously thin.
The dismissal of Kim Kyok Sik, for example, might be presented as the fall of a hard-liner who, apart from the 2010 Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyong Island shelling, must have played some role in the recent brinksmanship. However, although such a possibility does exist, there is no evidence that he has been removed because of his excessive bellicosity.
In many other countries such pressure on the military, arranged for by a young and relatively weak dictator, would lead to a dramatic increase in the likelihood of a coup. But this does not seem to be the case in the peculiar situation of North Korea.
The regime’s internal stability is shaky, so if some bold general manages to replace Kim Jong Un through a successful coup, this change would lead to a dramatic legitimacy crisis and perhaps even the implosion of the regime.
Kim Jong Un’s family blood gives him some legitimacy, and the military is therefore likely to accept a measure of mistreatment iwhile in his hands (or the hands of his civilian advisors).
Nonetheless, these purges show that whoever is in control of North Korea–be it Kim Jong Un, Jang Song Taek or some group–this person or persons are very confident.
(Illustration: James Pearson for NK News)
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