Jong-un’s grip on power mulled by gov’t, private symposium

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Jong-un’s grip on power mulled by gov’t, private symposium

Following last December’s brutal execution of his powerful uncle, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has succeeded in tightening his grip over the past year, but his reliance on key departments could threaten his control, a South Korean official said Tuesday.

Kim strengthened the authority of the Workers’ Party’s Organization and Guidance Department and State Security Department, the official said. Their expanded roles could cause instability in the long term.

“If they grow stronger to promote their own interests, they could be a threat to Kim’s power,” he said. “We have to monitor if the strengthened ministries will actually support Kim or eventually backfire on him.”

Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s uncle and former mentor-guardian, was executed on Dec. 12 last year.

A symposium held Monday in Seoul also evaluated Kim’s grip on power in the year since Jang’s brutal purge.

“The North’s first crisis came when the Eastern European Communist bloc collapsed,” Kim Suk-woo, former vice minister of unification, said Monday at a conference hosted by the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank of the National Intelligence Service, and sponsored by the JoongAng Ilbo. “Now is the second crisis for the North Korean regime. Many overseas think tanks have warned the North about its internal instability and advised the South Korean government to make preparations.”

At the symposium, North Korea experts and unification ministry officials gave their assessments on inter-Korean affairs for next year.

Other experts predicted Pyongyang will stage a series of armed provocations including a nuclear test and long-range missile firing for an important political anniversary next year, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party on Oct. 10, 2015. They also said the two Koreas will try to talk next year, but drastic shifts in their policies are unlikely due to the Kim regime’s instability and unpredictability.

“Pyongyang sees the Park Geun-hye administration’s policies as a plan to absorb the North through reunification, so its goal will be changing the South’s North Korea policy,” said Park Young-ho, a senior research fellow of the Korea Institute of National Unification. “It’s highly likely Pyongyang will intensify military tensions and threats toward the South to stop South Korea-U.S. joint military drills.”

Kim, in his New Year’s address for next year, will show a reconciliatory gesture toward the South and issue statements and make proposals that sound like a peace offensive, but any actual improvement in inter-Korean relations is unlikely, Park said.

Hyun Sung-il, a former North Korean diplomat currently working as a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, also said Pyongyang will step up its military provocations. “Depending on changes in public opinion in the South after its provocation and improvements in relations with Russia and Japan, the North will decide on whether it will continue more aggressive offensives toward the South or whether it will take a more defensive position by engaging in talks,” he said. “On the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party’s, the North will likely fire a long-range missile or conduct a fourth nuclear test to celebrate.”

He said next year will also be the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan’s colonial rule and the North may offer dialogue.

Lee Duck-haeng, senior policy coordination officer of the unification ministry, said the North will continue its efforts to strengthen the Kim regime while continuing it two-track development of its economy and nuclear program. “Although there are many pessimistic outlooks, we will try to persuade the North to refrain from making drastic moves such as a nuclear test or an armed attack,” Lee said.

BY SER MYO-JA, JEONG WON-YEOP [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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