While still praised as the country’s guiding ideology, Kim Jong Il’s Songun (military-first) idea is now declining in actual influence over North Korean state strategy, Kyongnam University professor Kim Keun-sik said in an interview with NK News.
Kim Jong Un, now having a firm grip on leadership, has rebalanced the party-military relationship by weakening the armed forces, which had become bloated under his father’s reign, and seeks to diversify North Korea’s foreign policy partners, Kim said.
In the first part of two-part interview with NK News, Kim talked about a number of issues, including his assessment of North Korea under the Kim Jong Un regime, its ideological and political changes, and its new foreign policy.
After receiving his doctorate from Seoul National University, Kim worked as a researcher at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies before he joined the faculty of Kyongnam University. He visited Pyongyang as a special entourage to President Roh Moo-hyun in the 2007 inter-Korean summit and met Kim Jong Il in person. He was registered on the 2011 Marquis Who’s Who.
NK NEWS: For starters, I’d like to ask your assessment of North Korea’s situation in 2014. How well has Kim Jong Un solidified his leadership?
Kim: North Korea under the Suryong (leader) system is a sort of dynasty. The power Kim Jong Un took was inherited – something that was given to him. In order to stand on his own feet, Kim Jong Un had to wipe away his father Kim Jong Il’s shadow from the regime.
It wasn’t an easy task, since he had a short time for succession of power compared to his father.
However, I would say he has been quite successful in general. He succeeded in downsizing the influence of the military, which had become bloated under Kim Jong Il’s Songun (military first) politics. He also succeeded in restoring the party back to the center of leadership.
NK NEWS: But he has reshuffled top leadership posts so many times. Some see this as a sign of weakness or immaturity.
Kim: It’s true that he changed the top posts like the Minister of People’s Armed Forces, the Chief of the General Political Bureau and the Chief of the General Staff of (the Korean People’s Army).
The military had the lion’s share of power and rights in North Korea and was the most seasoned elite power group under Songun politics. It probably wouldn’t be easy to dominate such a group in two or three years.
The party has now secured superiority over the military
The frequent reshuffling, promotions and demotions in the military may indicate the unstable nature of seizing power, but it may also show that Kim was trying hard to take power.
And it has been successful so far. The party has now secured superiority over the military: Choe Ryong Hae and Hwang Pyong So now hold sway in the military. Both have party origins and are not career soldiers at all. Choi is a kind of shareholder in the regime since he is a son of a guerrilla who fought with Kim Il Sung. Hwang is more like a professional manager who was chosen for his capacity and diligence.
NK NEWS: We couldn’t keep on at this point without talking about Jang Song Thaek, whose purge created a sensation among North Korea watchers last year.
Kim: Let me take Samsung, for example. After the chairman Lee Keun-hee’s departure, the first thing the son Lee Jae-yong will do would be weeding out his father’s guys.
The first was the dismissal of Ri Yong Ho in 2012. The four KPA top brass who followed Kim Jong Il’s hearse right beside it, including Ri – then the Chief of the General Staff – were knocked out after his dismissal. Namely, Kim Jong Il’s cadre in the military has been ousted.
The second was the return of Pak Pong Ju as premier. After his comeback, there was a generational shift in the Cabinet. Minister-class posts were replaced by younger technocrats.
The purge of Jang represents a similar change of generation in the party. The elite group established long before Kim Jong Un took power was removed with the purge.
NK NEWS: But Jang was purged in a grandiose uproar, unlike the other elites who left the stage.
Kim: His purge also represents the fight for rights within the power elite. The power (and the rights) of the administration, the party and the military were heavily concentrated in Jang.
Jang (Song Thaek) allegedly resisted the regime’s decision to give the rights back to the military and that triggered the purge
There could have been a sort of anti-Jang alliance among those who were isolated from these rights, like the party’s Organization and Guidance Department, the State Security Department (Bowibu), the military and the KPA General Political Bureau, as well as the Cabinet.
The South Korean intelligence service analyzed that it began with a clash between the military and the party administration group over the exclusive fishery rights. Jang allegedly resisted the regime’s decision to give the rights back to the military and that triggered the purge, but we can never be sure.
NK NEWS: How about Choe Ryong Hae? Though he is acknowledged in general as KJU’s second-in-command, there were reports of his seeming demotion.
Kim: It’s still early to say whether Choe lost his power, even though it seems true that Choe’s status has been adjusted lower with his recent dismissal from the presidium of the Politburo.
Choe’s replacement last year as the director of the KPA General Political Bureau by Hwang Pyong So was to lessen his burden, not a demotion. Choe has no military experience, though he was promoted to full general in 2010 with KJU, so his dominance over the KPA couldn’t be tight.
Also it made Choe uncomfortable in his relationship with Kim Kyong Ok. Kim is the one who is supposed to control the military from the party’s side. The relationship between them was good when they were in the party but after moving to the military it wouldn’t feel right for Choe to take orders from Kim.
That’s why Hwang Pyong So replaced him. Hwang used to take orders from Kim so it isn’t much of an issue if he works under Kim’s supervision. It remains to be seen if Hwang Pyong So can make it to the presidium, along with the very few of KJU, Kim Yong Nam and Choe Yong Rim.
NK NEWS: Are there any similarities or characteristics among the rising elite in the leadership?
(They are) mostly of the younger generation, like the “Samjiyon five” who accompanied KJU when he visited Mount Paektu to decide the purge of Jang. Young, loyal technocrats who are currently in deputy director-class positions.
(They are) the second generation of the guerrillas who fought with Kim Il Sung against Imperial Japan, like O Il Jong, is also approaching power, and there are also those who are old but hadn’t gotten power before, like Hwang Pyong So and Jo Yon Jun.
NK NEWS: Kim Jong Un has made a lot of appearance through the state media so far. Some of them were unexpected for a North Korean leader—like appearance of his wife Ri Sol Ju in public. What would you say about KJU’s style of leadership?
Kim: His style contrasts with his father’s but is similar to his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s. Unlike his reclusive father, KJU likes an open, emotional approach to the people. He crosses his arms with female soldiers and sheds tears in front of the children calling him “father.”
He also shows respects to the institution and the system. On the other hand, Kim Jong Il’s ruling style was a sort of direct control, ignoring the established institutions and systems. He even seldom held Politburo meetings.
The dismissal of Ri Yong Ho and the purge of Jang were all officially decided at Politburo meetings. And KJU announced “a new strategic line on carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously,” namely the Byungjin line in a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the party in 2013.
NK NEWS: Some say that the Byungjin line has no difference from Kim’s father’s Songun politics. The term Byungjin was introduced by Kim Il Sung in the ’60s and it clearly put weight on military capacity rather than economic development. Is that still the case in the era of Kim Jong Un?
Kim: Even though the same term is used, Kim Jong Un’s Byungjin is different from his grandfather’s. The two, in fact, point in the opposite directions.
In the ’60s, Kim Il Sung had to increase military spending rather than economic development due to the rapid change in the international climate. Now it is different for Kim Jong Un. They already have nuclear weapons in their hands so they will focus on economy, this means.
NK NEWS: But Songun is still being mentioned in state media and even in KJU’s latest New Year’s address.
Kim: The Fourth Conference of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 2012 revised the party rules to define “Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism” as the guiding idea of the party.
Through the naming of Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism, the Kim Jong Il-era’s Songun idea is highly abstracted into Kimjongilism and elevated to the peer of Kimilsungism. It, in effect, secured room for a new practical ideology required for the North Korea development strategy in the era of Kim Jong Un.
NK NEWS: Please elaborate on the concept of practical ideology.
Kim: It follows sociologist Franz Schurmann’s distinction between pure ideology and practical ideology. While pure ideology aims mainly at shaping the thinking of people, practical ideology aims to be implemented directly.
In the Kim Il Sung era, while its pure ideology was the Marxism-Leninism of Soviet Union, the Juche idea was propounded as practical ideology for post-war recovery and establishing socialism. It was later abstracted and elevated to pure ideology in the process of establishing a foundation for Kim Jong Il as the successor.
Kim Jong Un can put the Songun on the shelf and formulate a new practical ideology for the new era
Facing the direst crisis, North Korea during the era of Kim Jong Il presented the Songun politics in order to protect its socialist system and overcome the crisis. Songun was formed into a practical ideology of the time of crisis.
As Kim Jong Il put the Juche idea on the shelf and presented the Songun idea as its practical ideology, Kim Jong Un can put the Songun on the shelf and formulate a new practical ideology for the new era.
NK NEWS: So what could be the new practical ideology of the Kim Jong Un regime?
Kim: I anticipate that the direction would be very different from the previous era’s Songun, which was presented under a crisis of security. With its economy in recuperation and the diminishing crisis in the regime, KJU may choose the keynote policy prioritizing the economy and people’s living standards rather than military. It may come out this year.
As a transitional political discourse, North Korea began to spread the idea of “Kim Jong Il patriotism” in 2012. While it justifies Kim Jong Un’s succession by bloodline, it also emphasizes love for the people and the future generations. It can be read as KJU’s intent to focus on improvements in people’s lives.
NK NEWS: North Korea’s foreign policy under Kim Jong Un’s rule will be different from that under his father’s rule, it seems.
Kim: A nation’s foreign policy seeks its security and prosperity. In the time of the collapse of socialism around the world and the security crisis in North Korea, Kim Jong Il sought regime recognition and security through negotiations with the United States. And he sought economic support and cooperation from the South as we can see in the birth of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
In a nutshell, North Korea tried to rely on the U.S. for its security and on South Korea for its economy in the era of Kim Jong Il.
However, it changed its foreign policy after KJI’s stroke in 2008. It sought to maximize its security between the U.S. and China and its prosperity between South Korea and China.
It acquired the basics of long-range delivery with the successful satellite launch in 2012 and became a de facto nuclear power with the third nuclear test. It gained some confidence over the U.S. It wouldn’t evade negotiations with the U.S., but neither would it beg for it.
In spite of the standoff with the Lee Myung-bak administration and the discontinued aid from South Korea, North Korea managed to improve its economy with increased Sino-DPRK trade and the vitalization of the market economy. So it also gained confidence over the South. It wouldn’t shun cooperation with South Korea but it wouldn’t either beg for it.
It is not impossible that (the North) may shut down the (Kaesong) complex sooner or later
NK NEWS: So what would be the KJU regime’s South Korea policy?
Kim: The regime is quite confident that it has escaped from the regime crisis. More importantly, it made it without the South’s help. Now it is not desperate, as it used to be, for the South’s economic aid and cooperation. It even refused to take the Park Geun-hye administration’s aid.
It has been recently emphasizing inter-Korean relations as a “peaceful environment.” It could mean that it’s even fine to remain as two Koreas.
NK NEWS: There’s an ongoing standoff around the Kaesong Industrial Complex regarding the minimum wage of the North Korean workers in the complex. Some experts even worry that the North might choose to abandon the complex.
Kim: The complex does not have much merit to the North now. Even a skilled worker earns less than $200 a month while she can get $500 in Dandong or Vladivostok. The North wouldn’t be intimidated by the South even if the standoff goes worse. It is not impossible that it may shut down the complex sooner or later.
Picture: Subin Kim