[Viewpoint] North’s photos tell a hidden story

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[Viewpoint] North’s photos tell a hidden story

On April 10, North Korea’s government newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, published photographs of the members of the National Defense Commission that was newly formed at the Supreme People’s Assembly session held the day before.

It was an unprecedented public release in a country that traditionally keeps faceless the power elite who engage in confidential national affairs. The face of Lee Seon-sil, candidate member of the North Korean Workers’ Party and the highest ranking North Korean spy ever to operate in the South, was only known to the public in 1992 at the time of the Workers’ Party Central Division incident. The face of Paek Se-bong, whose name supposedly means “Three Peaks of Mount Paektu,” was shown for the first time. Paek is the second chairman of the Economic Council in charge of the munitions industry and was once speculated to be a possible successor to Kim Jong-il. Another notable face was Wu Dong-cheok, the deputy chief of the National Security Agency — the top intelligence organization in the North.

The members of the National Defense Commission must have been photographed specially for the newspaper since the photos feature the same pose and the same background.

There can be several reasons why the must-read newspaper for North Korean citizens published the photographs of the National Defense Commission members who had been kept secret before.

The photos give notice that the power group is ready to play the role of locomotive to lead the North Korean system. The North’s revised 1998 constitution defines the authority of the National Defense Commission as limited to the military and defense.

However, with the military-oriented policy promoted by the regime, the commission’s power has been expanded to become the de facto general administration.

The reshuffle of the National Defense Commission can be interpreted as an intention to make the commission the core of the national governing system.

It is a noteworthy signal that Workers’ Party’s chief of civil administration Chang Sung-taek, brother-in-law and closest aide of leader Kim Jong-il, has been newly named as a commission member. The promotion reflects that Kim, chairman of the National Defense Commission, is determined to exercise influence through Chang. Since Kim’s heirs are still young, the National Defense Commission can possibly be a bridge to power succession. Of course, the commission must do so without undermining the supremacy of the party.

By revealing the faces of the commission members, North Korea might want to display to its citizens and the international community that their system is normal after all.

Also, Kim Jong-il’s heir can take credit for the accomplishments of building a “powerful and prosperous country” through the commission. With the launch of the Obama administration in Washington, Pyongyang showed a new structure within its power hierarchy. As the United States considers sanctions on North Korean companies involved in activities related to missiles and weapons of mass destruction, Pyongyang might be displaying nerve by showing exactly those who are responsible, namely Paek Se-bong and Ju Gyu-chang, the Workers’ Party’s first deputy minister for the munitions industry.

The reshuffle and release of the pictures of the commission reveal Kim Jong-il’s intention to enhance the commission’s influence in the system and secure the structure of succession.

Since his health problems in August 2008, Kim has hastened to set up a succession structure. North Korea celebrated the third phase of the Kim Jong-il regime with a launch of the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite on an Eunha-2 rocket. Eunha, or the Milky Way, symbolizes Kim Jong-suk, mother of Kim Jong-il, and Kwangmyongsong, literally meaning bright star, represents the chairman himself.

Problems will arise when 2012 rolls around. It is doubtful that the North Korean regime can continue to fool its citizens with ad hoc theories without any substantial policies that actually improve the lives of North Koreans. The promise to become a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012 might detonate public anger.

Are Pyongyang’s elite really unaware of the possibility? Or do they think any alternative from the status quo is impossible?

Other former socialist countries collapsed as they tried to handle systemic crisis with makeshift solutions. The North Korean authorities can learn from their failures.

*The writer is a fellow researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Ki-dong
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