[Viewpoint] Kim must discard military-first policy

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[Viewpoint] Kim must discard military-first policy

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun declared on Thursday the opening of the “Kim Jong-un era” by calling him vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party, “the great successor of the socialist revolution” and “the great leader of the people.” The organ of the North Korean Workers’ Party also announced that Kim Jong-un would carry out the military-first policy pursued by his father Kim Jong-il.

For the time being, it is inevitable that North Korea’s military and party leadership have no other choice but follow the teachings left by Kim Jong-il, carrying on the revolutionary task of juche (self-reliance) ideology and the military-first policy.

It is natural, therefore, that the paper urged the North Korean people to “safeguard the socialist system and the accomplishments of the revolution by following the military-first policy of Comrade Kim Jong-un faithfully and by strengthening the self-defense military capability of the nation.”

However, the North Korean residents watch with suspicion whether Kim Jong-un, a young man who was designated as the successor to Kim Jong-il only a year and three months ago and had no time to plant supporters in the military and the party, can hold the military leaders under his thumb to carry out the military-first policy successfully.

As the core members of the North Korean leadership belong to a special group that shares a common interest, North Korea under Kim Jong-un will be ruled, for the time being, by a collective leadership of the royal family, headed by Jang Song-thaek, Jong-un’s uncle and Kim Kyong-hui, Jong-un’s aunt and Jang’s wife, together with the leaders of the military and the party.

But it is not possible to implement the military-first policy under a collective leadership. As it is a policy that gives first priority to the military in budget allocation and power distribution, the national leader should have a strong grip over the military leadership. If there is a power struggle among the royal family, the leaders of the party, and the military - while Kim Jong-un fails to exercise proper leadership - the consequences will be grave. The military that has overpowered the party since the inception of the military-first policy will destabilize the stability of the regime.

Paradoxically, China and the United States also want stability of the North Korean regime. China wants Kim Jong-un’s leadership to stabilize as soon as possible. China worries that it could face a situation where it has to confront the United States militarily, and it also worries about a large influx of North Korean refugees along the border with the North if North Korea fails to properly handle an emergency situation there.

As soon as North Korea announced the death of Kim Jong-il, therefore, China sent a telegram of condolence expressing its support of Kim Jong-un’s leadership. All nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party, including President Ju Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice President Xi Jinping, the president-designate, paid their respect to the deceased at the memorial alter at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. It seems that China aims to strengthen its influence over North Korea by helping North Korea stabilize its new leadership.

The Chinese press gives support to the government. They say that China must increase its influence over North Korea on this occasion and hold hegemony in East Asia.

After the mourning period, China will invite Kim Jong-un to Beijing to officially approve his leadership and provide emergency aid. Thus, North Korea’s already heavy reliance on China will grow heavier fast, and the North will soon become a satellite-state of China, both in name and reality.

The biggest concern of Washington is keeping the command and control system of North Korea’s nuclear weapons intact. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement on Monday that the United States wants a peaceful and stable power transition in North Korea, and she also made it clear that the United States would not interfere as long as North Korea’s “new leadership” maintained stability.

The following day, Washington held talks with Pyongyang on humanitarian aid in New York. The message Washington wanted to convey was that the United States will continue to hold negotiations for the resumption of the six-party talks, if the new leadership keeps the command and control over its nuclear weapons intact.

In the post-Kim Jong-il era, what the neighboring countries worry about most is that a power struggle breaks out in North Korea and the regime loses control. If the North continues to pursue the military-first policy, a power struggle or a military coup will ensue because the military-first policy gives excessive power to the military leadership. Kim Jong-un and his supporters should discard the military-first policy.

Instead, they should adopt Chinese-style reform policies. If Pyongyang adopts reform policies, South Korea and the United States, as well as China, will help Pyongyang develop its economy. They will also provide emergency aid, including grain and fuel. Ultimately, Pyongyang will be able to overcome prolonged economic hardship and Kim Jong-un will gain the support of the North Korean people.

The military-first policy is nothing but an extreme form of a military dictatorship. Kim Jong-il adopted it after the death of Kim Il Sung, modeling after the precedent set by Deng Xiaoping, who ruled China with the title of the chairman of the Central Military Commission from 1983 till 1990. It should be discarded with the death of its originator.

*The writer is a visiting professor of communications at Sejong University.


By Park Sung-soo

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