Kim Jong-un unveils his new team. Safe or dirty hands?


4 May 2016


Next Friday stare hard at North Korea. Remember what and who you see. On Friday 6 May in North Korea, after more than 30 years wait, there will be a Party Congress – a meeting of apparatchiks and keepers of the inner sanctum of North Korean power.

The faces that will appear will be in new places.  The names will change to protect the innocent?  There is none. This is the meeting that is supposed to take place every five years.  Not one has stood up since the last one in 1980 to ask why no one has put out the chairs.  Only the leader can say and anyone who tries to will probably get what was coming to him anyway – even Kim Jung-un’s relatives do not scare the executioner in that place.

So why have the Congress now?

This is Kim Jung-un’s Coronation. In spite of the smiles, spontaneous clapping at his very appearance it has taken until now for the Dear Leader to get his ducks in a row, shoot those who stood crookedly or to his liking and put in place those he can trust – for the moment. This is his moment to set out his own way of running North Korea and not to be a bag carrier for policies written in the time of his father, Kim Jong-il.

All major committee chairmen and senior members will be appointed and plans for the ambitions of each section of the governance of North Korea will be recognized. New-old faces, new-old policies are part of the code-breaking efforts of trying to read North Korea. There is little point in looking for new guidelines.

What we should look for are the handful of people with power that survive, step forward for the first time or in one particular case, is brought from retirement. For that is the way of the political musical chairs in North Korea.

This is the political postcard of easy targets for the executioners or hard seats for the new men who will keep the Dear Leader in power?

In short, Kim Jong-un appears to have cleared out the old guard some of whom were hang overs from the 1950s and 1960s and who owed their ranks and badges to Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il

The most powerful man in the army Rim Kwang Il is now Director of the KPA – the Korean Peoples Army. He has spent most of the past twenty years eye-balling South Korea and deciding how the KPA would take out South Koreran units and US forces if the long truce should rupture.

And there is a new man as head of the United Front Department directing Intelligence and Policy towards South Korea, Kim Yong Chol. This 4-star general, just turned 70, has control of everything that matters in civilian and military Intelligence. He is also virtually in command of cyber warfare.

The third appointment is the most interesting, Ri Myong Su. He is getting on: 82 and had retired two years ago. But he is to be trusted and the people trust him as one of the reliables of a quarter of a century ago. Most of all, Kim Jung-un will need a safe pair of hands if, as he suspects, the Americans and Japanese (perhaps too the Chinese) are preparing to put pressure on North Korea to abandon the high grade nuclear weapons programme.

The order of battle (orbat) and technological changes in the North Korean army demand new strategies to handle so-called advances. Even the form battle may be fought must change. We think we have seen in the North Korean Operations Bureau more changes at highest levels (seven directors moved out five different defence ministers appointed by Kim Jong-un) than ever before Kim Jong-un took tacit power on 11 October 2011.

But what we really need to know is this: Are these movements of personalities a prelude to a complete change in the way the chiefs of staff corridor operates and an end to the series of denunciations and therefore a feeling that Kim Jong-un is at last getting his military house in order.

The second consideration is something that has been suspected for the past six months or so: Kim Jong-un now has, or thinks he has, a full nuclear/conventional military orbat. So the question is obvious: Friday’s Congress consolidates the authority of the Dear Leader and also the commanding positions of the new order. It comes with more military muscle than he has ever had. It is not a question of will he use it and if so what for.  It is a question of who of the new and the trusted people on Friday has the confidence to see that the new order is used wisely.

A wrong move or worse, a wrongly interpreted step will give the executioner a day’s work and the region the shivers.



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