A Time of Change on the Korean Peninsula

Behind the Scenes of the Pyongyang Power Struggle


How should we interpret the recent sacking of Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s army chief of staff? A scholar versed in North Korea’s internal affairs looks at the background to this purge and the maneuvering that could jeopardize the Kim Jong-un regime.

April 2012 marked the start of a major overhaul of the power structure in North Korea. This revealed itself in the sudden removal of Ri Yong-ho in July from his leadership spot as chief of general staff of the Korean People’s Army and from all his posts in the Workers’ Party of Korea. Though the official reason cited was his “poor health,” Ri’s sacking was in fact a politically motivated purge.

The removal of Ri Yong-ho was orchestrated by Jang Sung-taek (Kim Jong-un’s uncle), a top figure in the Workers’ Party of Korea; the direct cause was the conflict between these two senior figures over economic reforms (the “June 28 policy”).

I will touch on the background to this development later, but the key question is what impact the power struggle between Ri and Jang will have on the power base of the Kim Jong-un regime. My own conclusion is that the purge of Ri Yong-ho will become the storm center of a disturbance that will rock the existing setup. The removal of Ri is no more than the opening act of the power struggle. Depending on subsequent developments, it may progress into a major upheaval affecting the entire central leadership.

Misreading the Purge

The sacking of Ri Yong-ho has been widely interpreted as an expansion of Kim Jong-un’s leadership power. People suggest that it shows the party solidifying its authority over the Korean People’s Army, and the further expansion of Jang Sung-taek’s influence over domestic and external policy; some even assert that Jang has brought the military entirely under his control. Frankly, though, these assessments strike me as mistaken—or at least severely lacking in cogency. I would sum up the problems with them in the following three points.

The first question to consider is whether Kim Jong-un’s leadership power has in fact expanded. My answer is no, it has not. If anything, I believe it has shrunk. Ri Yong-ho was one of Kim Jong-un’s closest aides. Whatever the reason may be, Kim has in effect lost his right-hand man. The People’s Army is the main pillar supporting the Kim Jong-un regime. Ri’s sacking has severely eroded the cohesion of the military. It thus reveals a lack of leadership power.

The second key question concerns the party’s authority over the People’s Army. In other words: Has “military first [party second]” politics been replaced with “party first [military second]” politics? Again the answer is no. Admittedly Ri Yong-ho, the leading figure of the new military elite, has disappeared from the main stage for the time being. But the members of this elite who were seen as his successors have not yet been purged. Nor is there any sign that the old guard, which is in rivalry with the new elite, has regained power. Overall an eerie calm pervades the People’s Army. Both the new elite and the old guard seem to be focusing on the progress of economic reforms, waiting to see how Jang Sung-taek and the Workers’ Party will move next.

The third and final point to consider concerns Jang Sung-taek’s position. Is he expanding his clout to the point of grabbing effective control over the military? It would seem that here, also, the answer is no. With the sacking of Ri Yong-ho, Jang has indeed removed his chief rival in the struggle for power. But this seemingly favorable turn brings him to a critical juncture. Eliminating Ri puts Jang at the pinnacle, but there is only a fine line between this height of success and the pit of dashed ambition. Since the June 28 policy triggered the purge, Jang may meet his downfall if this economic reform program fails—and the chances of its failure are great.

Premature End of the Kim Jong-un Guardianship

Next, taking the purge of Ri Yong-ho as a point of reference, we can look at the power struggle now underway in North Korea and the prospects for future developments.

The move to sack Ri had major significance within the context of the post-succession power struggle in Pyongyang. It represented the end of the “Kim Jong-un guardianship” regime; this was a collective leadership setup that Kim Jong-il established early in 2009, bringing together members of his family and leading figures from the major factions in the party and the military to support Kim Jong-un as his successor. The aim was to prevent the outbreak of factional strife by maintaining a balance of power among the factions.

Following Kim Jong-il’s sudden death, this faction-balanced “guardianship” regime took the character of the former leader’s legacy instructions—his last will and testament, so to speak. One would ordinarily expect that, out of respect for the late leader’s wishes, there would be no explicit change in the power structure at least until the first anniversary of his death (December 2012). But the shelf life of Kim Jong-il’s legacy provisions actually seems to have ended in April 2012.

The move to break away from the guardianship regime set up by Kim Jong-il became evident at the Workers’ Party conference in April, which brought the dramatic promotion of Choe Ryong-hae. Choe was catapulted over the heads of the senior figures in the regime—jumping from twenty-first place in the leadership rankings to third place. This promotion was a clear indication of a change in the power structure. The new ranking can be mapped as follows:

Immediately after the figurehead, Kim Jong-un, at the top comes Kim Kyong-hui, his aunt. Choe Ryong-hae is third, followed by Jang Sung-taek (Kim Kyong-hui’s husband). Then comes the troika heading the new military elite: Ri Yong-ho, Kim Yong-chol, and Kim Jong-gak. And ranking below them are senior figures from the two major factions of the old military elite: (1) O Kuk-ryol and Kim Yong-chun and (2) Hyon Chol-hae and Ri Myong-su.

Behind the Scenes of the Purge and Revamping

The reshuffle described above raises three points for us to consider. First there is the significance of Choe Ryong-hae’s sudden jump to a spot between Kim Kyong-hui and her husband, Jang Sung-taek. Second is the appearance of a figure who dared to go against Kim Jong-il’s legacy instructions and implement a major change in the leadership structure. And third is the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that occurred within the new power structure with the purge of Ri Yong-ho. Below I will consider these points in order.

First, let us look at Choe Ryong-hae’s dramatic promotion. Choe is a member of North Korea’s “Crown Prince Party,” consisting of the offspring of the top figures in the revolutionary struggle. His father was Choe Hyon, who was a comrade in arms of Kim Il-sung in the days of the Anti-Japanese People’s Guerrilla Army and subsequently served as minister of the People’s Armed Forces (equivalent to the position of minister of defense). The younger Choe, in contrast, had not particularly distinguished himself in his work as a secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. Even so, this “princeling” was appointed to key posts wielding authority over the party, the military, and the government.

The core significance of Choe’s promotion is the sanctification of revolutionary pedigree, based on the absolute standard of descent from members of the Anti-Japanese People’s Guerrilla Army led by Kim Il-sung. It is a political move that treats these princelings as members of Pyongyang’s ruling house in the broad sense of the term. In addition, Kim Kyong-hui has established a “dynastic succession vanguard,” whose core consists of those with revolutionary pedigree, and has placed various members of this group in key party posts within the Organization and Guidance Department and the Propaganda and Agitation Department.

In this way, Kim Kyong-hui, while remaining to the rear of her nephew Kim Jong-un, has taken charge as the de facto absolute ruler. Jang Sung-taek, meanwhile, is tied to the Kim family only by marriage, and has seen his position slip amidst the pedigree-conscious reshuffle.

While Kim Jong-il was alive, Jang Sung-taek held the unchallenged spot of number two in the de facto power ranking, and his sharpness won him the reputation as a power broker par excellence. During this period, Choe Ryong-hae served as Kim’s faithful right-hand man. But this power structure has changed. Choe’s sudden promotion had a tremendous impact, and since then Jang’s influence has receded considerably. Senior officials in the party and military are now looking to please Kim Kyong-hui rather than her husband. Promoting Choe was a shrewd maneuver by Kim Kyong-hui to concentrate power in her own hands.

The Emerging Conflict Between the New Military Elite and Old Guard

Kim Kyong-hui has thus established herself as an absolute leader who can even violate the legacy instructions of her late brother, Kim Jong-il. She is directing personnel affairs with commands issued through the mouth of her nephew Kim Jong-un, and she controls policy matters through Choe Ryong-hae.

A move as abrupt and dramatic as the vaulting of Choe into the number-three spot was bound to cause serious conflict and have major repercussions. And the purge of Ri Yong-ho in July was a manifestation of this.

Hints of conflict between party leader Jang Sung-taek and military leader Ri Yong-ho became visible shortly after Kim Jong-il set up the guardianship regime to smooth the succession of power after his death. Initially Jang and Ri were allies in promoting the dynastic succession of power to Kim Jong-un. Their aim was to restrain the reactionaries in the party and conservatives in the military who opposed Jang.

Kim Jong-un made his first public appearance at the Workers’ Party conference in September 2010, where he was suddenly given the post of vice-chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission. Jang Sung-taek matched this with the appointment of Ri Yong-ho as another vice-chairman of the same commission. This was a promotion that ignored the order of ranking within the People’s Army, and it was followed by the emergence of the “new military elite” led by Ri Yong-ho.

In response to this development, the old military elite split into two factions. One was the “orthodox” faction led by National Defense Commission Vice-Chairman O Kuk-ryol, a veteran of the Operations Department. The other was the “merit” faction led by First Vice-Minister of the People’s Armed Forces Hyon Chol-hae and Minister of People’s Security Ri Myong-su, who favored Kim Jong-il’s second son, Kim Jong-chul, as his successor.

The new military elite proceeded to grab various economic rights from the old elite and drive it into a corner. That was according to plan. But Jang Sung-taek and Ri Yong-ho quickly realized that they had miscalculated. The old elite fought back, using Kim Jong-il’s legacy instructions as a weapon in their counterattack, as the atmosphere became increasingly turbulent.

The Reckless Shelling of Yeonpyeong-do

The shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong-do, in November 2010, was a byproduct of this face-off within the military. The indiscriminate bombardment of this civilian-inhabited island brought North-South tensions to the brink of war. By staging this move, Ri Yong-ho sought to defuse the conflict between the new and old elites within the North Korean military. And he did so with Jang Sung-taek’s approval. The truce between the new and old elites proved short-lived, however, and the unprecedented outrage did major damage to both men’s prestige.

This brought about a serious rift in the alliance between Jang and Ri. According to inside information I gleaned from a senior North Korean official, a top figure in the new elite summoned one of Jang’s close aides in February 2011, and gave him a sharp warning: “We won’t stand for anyone getting in the way of Kim Jong-un, no matter who they might be.” At that point Jang managed to maintain his restraint even in the face of his ally’s provocative behavior. But his tolerance had its limits. The rivalry between Jang and Ri had the potential to set off a power struggle, and this danger could be sensed for more than a year before Ri’s purge.

Jang Sung-taek in effect got bitten by his own pet dog, Ri Yong-ho. And Jang’s troubles were magnified with the sudden promotion of Choe Ryong-hae. Jang lost his number-two spot in the Pyongyang power ranking to this former subordinate, thereby suffering a major blow to his own authority. The damage he suffered at the hands of Ri was brought on by his own failure to discipline the latter. Jang’s loss to Choe, meanwhile, resulted from the latter’s shift of allegiance from him to a new master, his wife Kim Kyong-hui.

Economic Reforms Lead to the Purge

Jang, in a state of alarm, decided to directly confront Ri. As I noted, the direct trigger was the proposed program of economic reforms. Seeking to restore his own lost authority, Jang arranged for Kim Jong-un to announce a new economic reform program on June 28, 2012. This took the form of a secret internal policy document titled “Concerning the Establishment of a New Economic Management System of Our Own Style.” The policy is due to be implemented on October 1, but it is still unclear what specific measures it will entail. Clearly, however, the handling of the tremendous economic interests controlled by the military will have a major bearing on the success or failure of the reform program.

If Jang tries to lay his hands on the interests of the military, the new program is sure to face rough going. The military, including the new and old elites, will fight fiercely against any such move. According to information I obtained from a senior North Korean official, Ri Yong-ho in fact revealed open opposition to the reform agenda. This is because it clearly aims to weaken the military’s economic interests. Ri was immediately able to see that Jang was spurring Kim Jong-un to recognize the need for economic development. This brought the conflict between Ri and Jang to the boiling point.

The June 28 policy is ambiguous. According to internal documents I have seen, Kim Jong-un gave the following instructions for its drafting: “We will improve our own economic management methods with reference to examples from foreign countries considered to offer the world’s best models.” But he also directed the drafters to preserve the military-first stance, strengthen defense capabilities, and realize Kim Il-sung’s ideology of Juche (self-reliance). So the program from the start had to pursue two mutually exclusive objectives: economic reform and military-first politics. It is like having one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake.

By focusing on different parts of this ambiguous agenda, Jang and Ri could both use the June 28 policy as a banner for promotion of their respective causes. But if we consider the heightened level of expectations directed at the Kim Jong-un government by people within North Korea, along with the attentive gaze of foreign observers, it seems that Jang, who is pursuing the cause of reform, currently holds the upper hand.

The Military Sits Tight for Now

Jang Sung-taek, judging the timing to be in his favor, decided to go on the offensive in pushing for economic reforms. And both Kim Kyong-hui and Choe Ryong-hae went along with him. But inasmuch as the reform policy focused on cutting back the military’s interests, Ri Yong-ho had no choice but to oppose it. And with the net of encirclement around him complete, he found himself suddenly sacked.

Ri and the new military elite he leads have not made any moves to strongly oppose his purge; nor has the old military elite tried to take advantage of Ri’s fall by joining forces with Jang Sung-taek and attacking the new elite. Given the ambiguity of the June 28 policy, the military can only sit tight for the time being and watch for further developments. But when this policy is fleshed out with concrete measures, the new and old elites will both be ready to put up a fierce fight to maintain the military-first posture, under the banner of Kim Jong-il’s legacy instructions.

Since Ri Yong-ho was ousted from power, the authorities in Pyongyang have made no move to demonize him in their propaganda geared to domestic consumption. This contrasts with the case of former party secretary Pak Nam-gi, for example, who was purged following the failure of the currency redenomination in 2010. After his fall, Pyongyang conducted a major propaganda campaign against him, pinning the trumped-up label of “landlord’s son” on him. The absence of such a campaign this time seems to reflect the eerie calm within the military, as noted above.

The Perils of High Expectations

Even setting aside the issue of the military’s resistance to specific measures, the new economic policy is fraught with potential difficulties. For one thing, a conservative faction still exists within the Workers’ Party. And in the government, the working-level bureaucrats responsible for policy management and oversight are still smarting from the failure of two earlier reform moves—the “July 1 Economic Management Improvement Measures” of 2002 and the 2010 currency reform. From inside sources I have learned that a mood of self-preservation now permeates the bureaucracy. This is because, as one North Korean official working overseas puts it, “if a policy fails, the blame is pinned on the working-level bureaucrats.”

The biggest political variable is the scope of public expectations. With the arrival of a young new leader, North Koreans are hoping for full-fledged reform and liberalization. And the strategy of presenting Kim Jong-un as the “leader for a new age” is heightening those hopes. So far, this maneuver orchestrated by the team backing dynastic succession (the party’s propaganda department) has worked as intended. The problem is what comes next.

The economic reform program that Jang Sung-taek is promoting cannot take the form of market-promotion policies. It is more likely that it will be limited to strengthening state control over existing private markets. To put it plainly, the reforms will probably fall short of those adopted in 2002, which included overall revisions of wage and price levels.

The higher the public’s hopes are, the bigger their subsequent disappointment will be. If the new regime fails to deliver economic reforms, its popular support will plummet. The disillusionment may even reach the point of jeopardizing the regime’s hold on power.

The All-Powerful (But Physically Frail) Aunt

“We won’t stand for anyone getting in the way of Kim Jong-un.” This was a warning directed at Jang Sung-taek from a leader of the new military elite. But Jang may next receive a similar warning from his own wife, Kim Kyong-hui. And she will be in accord with not just Choe Ryong-hae, but Kim Jong-un himself. In other words, it is Jang, not the new military elite, who is directly at risk from the power struggle.

Another potential roadblock to Kim Jong-un’s progress is the health of his aunt, Kim Kyong-hui—North Korea’s current de facto absolute leader. Years of heavy drinking have taken a toll on her health, and her weight has recently plummeted to just 38 kilograms. Despite secretly undergoing treatment in China, she has been unable to break her drinking habit, and her health reportedly shows no sign of recovering. One figure close to her has suggested she may have less than a year to live.

The North Korean media recently released an interesting photo, showing Kim Kyong-hui with her nephew on a scary ride at a new amusement park. Some people have called this a foolish stunt by an old lady unable to act her own age. But I see it as a political performance aimed at quelling rumors about her poor health.

If Kim Kyong-hui becomes incapacitated, North Korea is sure to experience great turmoil. In the post–Kim Jong-il era, there is nobody in sight who could replace her as the absolute leader. As a civilian figure, she has curbed the ambitions of the military, which has become bloated as a result of the military-first posture. Without that restraining influence, there will be an increased danger of a sharp shift from the military-first posture to a military-only attitude.

Meanwhile, the power struggle shows signs of intensifying in relation to the economic reform program, even as Kim Kyong-hui’s health shows signs of failing. The new Kim Jong-un regime already faces a major set of challenges to its survival.

(Originally written in Japanese in September 2012. Title background photograph: Kim Jong-un [right] and top military officials reviewing the parade commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung. KCNA/EPA/Jiji)

North Korea Kim Jong-un Ri Yong-ho Korean People’s Army Jang Sung-taek Pyongyang Choe Ryong-hae Kim Yong-chol Kim Kyong-hui Kim Jong-gak Kim Il-sung Yeonpyeong-do Juche Workers' Party of Korea