For the North Korean leadership the month of August was largely dominated by inter-Korean tensions and talks which took place during the latter part of the month. The inter-Korean military confrontation and resulting dialogue assumed top priority on the regime leadership’s agenda, to that extent that Kim Jong Un made no appearances after August 18 which were not related to this matter.
August saw a reduction in both the number of publicized appearances by Kim as well as the number of regime elites appearing with him. These low numbers may also be the result of a focused agenda during the month. The North Korean regime’s actions during this time – including some unspecified changes to the Central Military Commission afterward – likely resulted from some domestic political issues which are currently unclear to outside observers due to the highly opaque nature of North Korean politics.
KIM’S ACTIVITY IN AUGUST
Kim Jong Un made only nine publicized appearances in August. With the exception of September 2014 – when Kim made only one appearance due to his 40-day long absence during which he may have undergone foot surgery – this is the fewest appearances Kim has made in a single month since January 2013, when he appeared only seven times.
The reason for the low number of public appearances is not readily apparent, though it may have resulted from Kim being preoccupied with behind-the-scenes matters, particularly in connection with the elevated inter-Korean tensions during the latter part of the month. Kim’s only appearances after August 20 – the day of the artillery fire exchange at the Korean Demilitarized Zone – were meetings of the Central Military Commission to address this issue. Additionally, Kim made no public appearances in relation to the Day of Songun on August 25.
The categorical breakdown of Kim’s public appearances was more evenly distributed than is typical, with three military-related events, three economic sector events, two political event, one arts and cultural event and two uncategorized.
|Date (state media)||Event||Sector||Province||County / City|
|8/2/2015||Kim Jong Un Provides Field Guidance to Newly-built Pyongyang Home for Aged||O||Pyongyang||Pyongyang|
|8/4/2015||Kim Jong Un Enjoys Art Performance of State Merited Chorus||A||Pyongyang||Pyongyang|
|8/6/2015||Kim Jong Un Tours Farm Machine Exhibition||E||Not specified|
|8/11/2015||Kim Jong Un Greets Women East Asian Cup Winners at Airport||O||Pyongyang||Pyongyang|
|8/13/2015||Kim Jong Un Gives Field Guidance to Farm No. 1116 under KPA Unit||M/E||Not specified|
|8/15/2015||Kim Jong Un Visits Kumsusan Palace of Sun||P||Pyongyang||Pyongyang|
|8/18/2015||Kim Jong Un Visits Taedonggang Combined Fruit Farm||E||Pyongyang||Pyongyang|
|8/21/2015||Kim Jong Un Guides Emergency Enlarged Meeting of WPK Central Military Commission||M||Pyongyang||Pyongyang|
|8/28/2015||Kim Jong Un Guides Enlarged Meeting of WPK Central Military Commission||M/P||Pyongyang||Pyongyang|
APPEARANCES & POSITION CHANGES
Only 16 different elites made by-name appearances (that is, their names were explicitly mentioned in the state media reports) alongside Kim Jong Un in August. This is relatively low both in absolute numbers as well as in proportion to Kim’s frequency of appearance. The average number of officials appearing with Kim per month since January 2014 is about 26. The ratio of elites with Kim to appearances by Kim in August was 1.16/1. The average since January 2014 is 2.19/1. Such low numbers could be a sign of a shrinking inner circle of officials with direct access and trust, though it only a consistent trend would confirm that this is the case, so further observation will be necessary. Previously, the ratio of elites to appearances was below 2.00/1 for four consecutive months from May through August 2014 and dropped to as low as 1.00/1 in June 2014, but then rose up to 7.00/1 in September 2014.
For the first time in August, O Su Yong was the official who accompanied Kim on the greatest number of public appearances in a given month, appearing alongside Kim four times. This breaks a five-month trend of Hwang Pyong So appearing most frequently with Kim. O’s taking of the top spot this month, however, may not indicate a shift in ranking of the elites. Instead, his appearances seem to be a result of Kim himself visiting more locations relevant to O’s role as WPK Secretary of Light Industry, such as a farm machine exhibition, two farms and the Pyongyang Home for the Aged.
Both Hwang Pyong So and Choe Ryong Hae appeared with Kim only twice in August, as did Jo Yong Won, Pak Pong Ju, and Kim’s wife Ri Sol Ju. All others appeared alongside Kim only once during the month.
The ruling Workers’ Party of Korea made some unspecified changes – both dismissals and new appointments – to the WPK Central Military Commission on August 28, but as of yet it is unknown who was removed or added to the CMC.
INTER-KOREAN TENSIONS & TALKS
Much of the latter part of August was a period of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Aside from the obvious role North Korean leadership would have in the behind-the-scenes direction of the North’s actions – both military and diplomatic – the North Korean leadership visibly responded to and dealt with the inter-Korean tensions through meetings both within the North Korean regime and between officials of the North and South.
On the night of August 20, following an exchange of artillery fire across the Demilitarized Zone that afternoon, North Korea convened an emergency enlarged meeting of the WPK Central Military Commission, the highest military decision-making body in the country. According to state media, the meeting “discussed a plan for the political and military counteractions” and “examined and ratified the offensive operation plan of the KPA Front Command to launch retaliatory strike and counterattack … under an unavoidable situation.”
Though state media did not list the names of any officials other than Kim Jong Un in its report, photographs revealed the presence of at least eight senior military officials of the DPRK: Hwang Pyong So, director of the KPA General Political Bureau; Pak Yong Sik, minister of the People’s Armed Forces; Ri Yong Gil, chief of the KPA General Staff; Kim Chun Sam, first vice chief of the KPA General Staff and director of General Staff Operations Bureau; Jo Kyong Chol, commander of Military Security Command; Kim Won Hong, minister of State Security; Kim Yong Chol, director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau; and Choe Pu Il, minister of State Security and commander of Korean People’s Internal Security Forces. Commanders of the front-line corps of the KPA were also present according to the state media report, though none were specifically named.
Four senior officials (two each from North and South Korea) held on-and-off marathon talks from August 22 through 24. Representing the South were ROK Kim Kwan-jin, chief of South Korea’s National Security Council, and Hong Yong-pyo, Seoul’s minister of Unification. Representing the North were Hwang Pyong So, director of the Korean People’s Army General Political Bureau and member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of WPK, and Kim Yang Gon, director of the WPK United Front Department (roughly North Korea’s equivalent to the South’s Ministry of Unification).
Pyongyang made the original offer of inter-Korean talks on August 21 ahead of the deadline – 5 p.m. on August 22 – they had previously issued in an ultimatum demanding that Seoul cease propaganda broadcasts toward the North at the DMZ. The North’s original proposal included attendance by only Kim Yang Gon, but the South responded with a request that Hwang Pyong So also be present. Following Seoul’s counter-proposal North and South Korea agreed to hold talks at Panmunjom beginning at 6 p.m. August 22.
The officials in attendance at the talks were significant and present for specific reasons. Kim Kwan-jin is the chief security adviser to South Korean President Park Geun-hye and has the greatest responsibility of South Korea’s military and security affairs. Hwang Pyong So is the senior political officer within the military and therefore the official most involved with controlling the military and overseeing the actions carried out by the KPA in accordance with directives by the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
Due to the military nature of the inter-Korean situation in August, the presence of these two was critical. Hong Yong-pyo of the South and Kim Yang Gon of the North are the senior officials for inter-Korean relations from their respective sides and would naturally be in attendance at any serious inter-Korean meeting. Additionally, three of the four – Kim Kwan-jin, Hwang Pyong So and Kim Yang Gon – participated in a previous meeting of senior officials in October during the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.
After nearly two straight days of talks, the officials representing the two Koreas concluded a six-point inter-Korean agreement. In the agreement, Pyongyang “expressed regret over the recent mine explosion” but did not apologize or accept any responsibility. The two sides also agreed to “arrange reunions of separated families and relatives from the north and the south on the occasion of the Harvest Moon Day,” making reference to Korean holiday of Chuseok, which falls on September 27 this year.
Following the inter-Korean talks and the resulting inter-Korean agreement and reduction of tensions, North Korea convened another enlarged meeting of the WPK Central Military Commission on August 28, the second such meeting within eight days. According to the KCNA report on the meeting the CMC “dismissed some members of the WPK Central Military Commission and appointed new ones and dealt with an organizational matter.” North Korea did not publicize which officials were dismissed from the CMC or which ones were appointed.
The reasons and motivation behind Pyongyang’s actions are still unclear and may remain so due to the opaque nature of North Korean politics. While one possibility is that North Korea simply wanted to get some type of concession out of South Korea, it appears to be more complex than that. As Aiden Foster-Carter pointed out, if all Kim wanted was dialogue, he could have tried simply sending a message to Seoul. A probable explanation is that for domestic political reasons, the regime felt the need to create the appearance of a military triumph over the South. The changes made in the CMC on August 28 – the specifics of which are still unknown – were likely the result of internal disagreements over the handling of the situation.
North Korea observed two national holidays in the month of August: National Liberation Day and the Day of Songun. National Liberation Day, August 15, marks the anniversary – the 70th this year – of the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II and the resulting end of Japan’s 35-year occupation of the Korean Peninsula. It is celebrated in South Korea as well. The Day of Songun, August 25, marks the anniversary – the 55th this year – of the official start of the Songun (“military first”) revolution, based on the visit of Kim Jong Il to the Seoul Ryu Kyong Su Guards 105th Tank Division on August 25, 1960.
Kim Jong Un and other senior officials made a customary visit to Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – the mausoleum for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il – in the early morning of August 15. Unlike most visits to Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, state media did not list the names of any officials accompanying Kim. Several senior military officers, however, could be identified in the photographs. Hwang Pyong So, director of the KPA General Political Bureau, and Pak Yong Sik, minister of the People’s Armed Forces, stood in the same positions as they did the last time Kim visited Kumsusan. Also present was Vice Marshal Kim Jong Gak, president of Kim Il Sung Military University, standing in the position most frequently occupied by Chief of the KPA General Staff Ri Yong Gil recently.
Events for the Day of Songun included a national meeting at the April 25 House of Culture in Pyongyang on August 24 attended by Pak Yong Sik, minister of the People’s Armed Forces, and additional visits to Kumsusan Palace of the Sun by senior party and state officials and commanding officers of the Korean People’s Army. Kim Jong Un made no public appearances related to this holiday personally this year, probably due to a prioritization of dealing with the inter-Korean tensions and the results thereof.
TIME ZONE CHANGE
On August 15, Liberation Day, North Korea formally implemented a time zone change from Korean Standard Time (UTC+9) – the same time zone used in South Korea and Japan – to the newly created Pyongyang Time Zone (UTC+8.5). This set the clocks in North Korea back by half an hour and created a 30 minute time difference between North and South Korea. Pyongyang’s publicly stated reasoning for the change was rooted in nationalism, anti-Japanese sentiment and anti-imperialism. The UTC+9 time zone was first used in Korea in 1912, when Korea was under Japanese occupation. Pyongyang claimed the time zone was a vestige of Japanese imperialism and that Korea should be in a time zone more appropriate to its location, not on Japanese time.
The reasons for the time change and the choice to implement it now may go deeper than just general anti-Japanese/anti-imperialist feeling and some desire to “correct” the time zone of Korea. This move may very well be an attempt to bolster the current leadership’s credentials. It is important for the leadership to show continual efforts to somehow improve the country and be active. A time zone change is much less risky than some previous endeavors such as the botched currency revaluation of 2009, but can still be said to be an effort to improve the economic situation in the country.
Time zone adjustments are often made in an effort to better align official time with the natural timing of sunrise and sunset in order to make more efficient use of daylight hours. Additionally, by describing Korean usage of the UTC+9 time zone as a vestige of Japanese imperialism, the change can help to both strengthen the current leadership’s ties to the anti-Japanese/anti-imperialist legacy of the regime’s founders – especially Kim Il Sung – while at the same time creating some anti-Japanese/anti-imperialist achievement which the current leadership can call its own, beyond just talking about the accomplishments of their forbears.
FULL ELITE BREAKDOWN FOR AUGUST
|Kim Jong Un||Supreme Leader||9||100%|
|O Su Yong||Secretary (Light Industry), WPK Central Committee; Chief Secretary of the North Hamgyong Provincial Committee of the WPK||4||44%|
|Choe Ryong Hae||Secretary (Worker’s Organizations), WPK Central Committee; Chairman, State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission||2||22%|
|Hwang Pyong So||Director, KPA General Political Bureau; Vice Chairman, NDC; First Deputy Director, WPK Organization and Guidance Depatment||2||22%|
|Jo Yong Won||Deputy Department Director, WPK Central Committee||2||22%|
|Pak Pong Ju||Premier of the DPRK||2||22%|
|Ri Sol Ju||Wife of the Supreme Leader||2||22%|
|Kim Jong Man||Chairman, Football Federation of the DPRK||1||11%|
|Kim Ki Nam||Secretary and Director, WPK Propaganda & Agitation Department||1||11%|
|Kim Yo Jong||Deputy Director, WPK Propaganda & Agitation Department||1||11%|
|Kim Yong Hun||Minister, Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports||1||11%|
|Pak Yong Sik||Minister of the People’s Armed Forces||1||11%|
|Ri Chol Man||Vice Premier of the DPRK; Minister, Ministry of Agriculture||1||11%|
|Ri Il Hwan||Department Director, WPK Central Committee||1||11%|
|Ri Jae Il||First Deputy Director, WPK Propaganda & Agitation Department||1||11%|
|Ri Yong Gil||Chief of the KPA General Staff||1||11%|
|So Hong Chan||Colonel General, KPA||1||11%|
Note: Numbers represent only appearances with Kim Jong Un and with the name listed by state media. Elites may make other unmentioned appearances and/or appearances without Kim Jong Un, which are not reflected in this table, though may be covered by the analysis. See the NK Leadership Tracker Methodology page for more information.
Featured image: Eric Lafforgue
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