Business as usual?
The most interesting aspect of the visit to the Incheon Games closing ceremony by a delegation of 11 top North Korean officials, including its second and third most powerful leaders, is that it coincided with an unexplained disappearance by leader Kim Jong-un. Some say this was a signal of the young leader’s strength and security: Despite suffering from a medical ailment, Kim Jong-un was bold enough to send envoys to the South. He only wants to be seen publicly as a powerful figure, so he won’t surface until he is at full strength. But he is secure enough in his position to send his trusted deputies. This view basically insists that it’s business-as-usual in North Korea and all the media speculation to the contrary is meaningless.
I am not so sure. First, autocratic dictators tend to suffer from intense paranoia and pathological insecurity that they will lose power. That is one of the reasons why dictators enforce such draconian controls and engage in various forms of self-adulation. Is there any evidence thus far that the current North Korean leader has charismatic qualities that make him more secure and less paranoid than other dictators? Not that I’ve seen, which means it’s highly unusual for him to send his number two to the South when he is missing without explanation. Even the fact that the media called the envoys the second and third most powerful men in the North should be seen as threatening to Kim.
Second, Hwang Pyong-so seems to be more than a “number two.” He seems more like a “number one-and-one-half.” Not only is he a top general and director of the Korean People’s Army Political Bureau, but his recent appointment as vice-chair of the all-powerful National Defense Commission, in addition to his deputy position in the Organization and Guidance Department, puts him at the hub of power circuits between the party and the military. This would look like “business-as-usual” if Hwang were named to the NDC position at the Supreme People’s Assembly with Kim approving the process - except that the North Korean leader was not there. If the issue that kept Kim from appearing was a broken ankle or gout, would it not have made more sense to delay the assembly’s meeting?
Third, during the North Korean delegation’s meetings with South Korea’s national security advisor and unification minister, the delegation was apparently offered an audience with the South Korean president. The North Koreans declined the offer, citing scheduling issues. This seems strange given that the last high-level delegation in 2009 sought a meeting with then-President Lee Myung-bak. Could it be that the North Koreans were embarrassed to meet, given all of the invectives and curses thrown at President Park lately? Or might it be that the delegation refused for reasons of protocol? That is, had they accepted a meeting with the president, they would have been obligated to do the same, should a high-level South Korean delegation visit the North.
The only thing that seemed normal about the visit is how the North Koreans reportedly responded to a discussion on the Cheonan sinking. They maintained they had no hand in the sinking and, of course, would not apologize.
Moreover, the mystery surrounding Kim’s well-being cannot be seen as a stand-alone development. Instead, it comes in the context of a series of odd events including the execution of Jang Song-thaek, the rapid turnover in multiple positions in the People’s Assembly and the leader’s fetish for big, wasteful leisure projects without any sign of economic reform - all of which suggest an out-of-touch-with-reality quality of leadership.
The North Korean elite scrutinizes the western media for what is said about their country and its leadership on a regular basis. To beat back all of the speculation about bloodless or bloody coups, one would expect Kim to show up soon, perhaps as early as a Worker’s Party of Korea commemoration this month. The context in which Kim reappears on stage will be scrutinized by many analysts. Is he in charge? Was he sick? Is he a puppet? Even if the propaganda aims to show him in control and recovered from a medical condition, the speculation will not stop. Though young, there is enough anecdotal evidence from the diplomatic community in Pyongyang that the young leader leads a dangerously unhealthy lifestyle. He is obese, a chain-smoker, heavy drinker and possibly experiments with other controlled substances. There is a proven history of heart disease and kidney ailments in the family. Combine these traits with the significant stress that comes from running a country, and the notion that the young leader could rule for nearly 50 years like his grandfather seems tenuous.
It is not clear who would run the country in Kim’s absence. The elder paragons of the Kim family are gone (the executed uncle Jang Song-thaek and the long-missing aunt Kim Kyong-hui), and there are no comparable figures who exercise the same degree of influence in the family, party and military.
This does not look like business as usual.
The author is professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at CSIS in Washington D.C.
By Victor Cha