Experts question fate of Kim’s rule

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Experts question fate of Kim’s rule


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, attends a party meeting commemorating the second anniversary of the death of late leader Kim Jong-il yesterday at the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium. On his left are Choe Ryong-hae, the chief of the General Political Bureau; Ri Yong-gil, chief of the general staff of the army; and Jang Jong-nam, minister of the People’s Armed Forces. [Screen capture of the Korean Central Television]

Young leader Kim Jong-un began the third year of his rule over North Korea with the bloody purge of his uncle, and so far experts agree that the restructured regime will likely maintain its stability for the next couple of years under his reign of terror.

However, views remain split as to whether the Kim leadership will survive in the long run.

With the purge and execution of Jang Song-thaek - the young leader’s uncle and steward - and his followers, Kim overhauled the power structure of the North Korean leadership he inherited two years ago from his father Kim Jong-il.

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death, and now five of the seven top officials of the ruling Workers’ Party and the military, who had the honor of following the late leader’s hearse, have either been purged or forced to retire.

Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, director of the Korean People’s Army Politburo, military chief General Ri Yong-gil and Hwang Pyong-so, deputy director of the Organization and Guidance Department of the Workers’ Party, replaced their posts in the power elite.

While liberal and conservative North Korea experts both agreed that the restructured leadership will remain stable for the time being, their outlooks for the North in the next four to five years are divided.

Whether Kim has the ability to control the powerful men in the ruling party, the government and military - as his father and grandfather did - will be his first test, they said. The most urgent task for the young leader to this end will be to find a balance between conflicting interests, a role which Jang had undertaken for decades.

“Jang was the primary mediator who linked the key officials in the party, government and military with the Kim family,” said a former senior official who had frequent contact with North Korean officials during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun presidencies.

According to the official, Jang delivered Kim Jong-il’s orders and intentions to other senior officials while informing him about their responses and sentiments. He was also assigned the crucial task of overseeing third-generation succession, the source said. “Jang was known to have been purged for a brief period in 2004,” he said. “But in fact, he was secretly tasked by Kim Jong-il to go over the successors.

As a result, the source said, Jang acted rather arrogantly, which was out of step with other top officials in the Kim Jong-un regime.

North Korea experts said Kim is well aware of that history and the next question will be whether he fills the seat left vacant by Jang. If a successor is appointed, they said, the young leader could likely face a similar situation, in which he would have to contend with a second-hand man over money and power. But if the position is left empty, Kim would have to personally deal with veteran officials in the party, government and military.

“The ruthless purge of his uncle clearly shows that Kim has control,” said Chon Hyun-joon, a former senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification.

Another professor of North Korea studies, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also stressed that the capabilities of the young North Korean leader must not be underestimated.

However, a retired general had a different perspective. “Just like the analysis of the German ambassador in Pyongyang, Jang was purged and executed because the military and party officials who begrudged him pressured Kim Jong-un,” he said. “In the next three years, there will be another dramatic event in the North.”

The general said it is unlikely that Kim Jong-un has the political ability and assets that match those of his father, who was groomed to be the North’s ruler for two decades.

Experts acknowledged that Kim Jong-un’s second test would be dealing with China.

They argued that China’s biggest gain from the reclusive communist state would be obtaining the rights to pass through the North’s territorial air space and keep its submarines in the East Sea. If that authority is allowed, China could gain a strategic advantage over the United States and Japan.

However, Jang’s execution has appeared to influence Beijing’s grand design, the experts noted, and China is concerned that the North could be influenced by U.S. and Japanese sanctions and military pressures.

“Jang’s purge will be a bad move in the North’s relations with China,” said Choi Jin-wook, a senior researcher of the Korea Institute of National Unification.

Others disagreed. “The Kim Jong-un regime could engage in military threats if it faces hardships, but basically it will maintain a conciliatory attitude toward the international community in order to improve the livelihoods of its people,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University. “It is wishful thinking that the Kim regime will run aground.”

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