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How Jong-un intends to build a ‘strong and mighty’ nation

Anatomy of North Korea: Part 2 How does Kim control the military?
May 08,2017
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Every other Monday, Ko Soo-suk, a North Korean expert at the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Center, will provide an in-depth look at one of the most reclusive nations on the planet. The analyses are based on the senior journalist’s two decades of reporting on North Korea. -Ed.


Kim Jong-un’s declaration of a so-called “Byungjin Nosun” policy in March 2013 gave an early hint of the young leader’s strategic vision: the parallel pursuit of economic development and nuclear weapons. It was Kim’s own interpretation of building a “strong and mighty” country, his father Kim Jong-il’s main ambition before his death in December 2011.

That vision was, in fact, a deviation from Kim Jong-il’s military-first policy. Kim Jong-un was determined to continue building nuclear weapons and technologically master an intercontinental ballistic missile - and commit energy and resources to creating a more prosperous North Korea.

In April 2012, a year before the Byungjin Nosun policy, Kim Jong-un centralized all economic powers in the Cabinet, co-opting most of the military’s money-making businesses except for the sale of weapons to foreign countries. Ri Yong-ho, former chief of the Korean People’s Army’s General Staff, was purged in July 2012 after he opposed this decision.

Ri’s purge was the beginning of a major reshuffle - and Kim Jong-un’s growing control over the military. In the five years of his reign, five people have been named defense minister, or chief of the People’s Armed Forces: Kim Jong-gak, Kim Kyok-sik, Jang Jong-nam, Hyon Yong-chol and Pak Yong-sik. Such a revolving door was unheard of: Kim Il Sung’s 46-year rule saw five defense ministers, while Kim Jong-il’s 17-year rule had three.

Kim Kyok-sik’s term lasted only half a year. Jang Jong-nam’s time in office, 13 months in total, was a rollercoaster ride, meaning for every peak there was a valley - and then another peak. Jang was appointed defense minister in his early 50s, unlike his predecessors, who were in their 60s or 70s. His predecessors had four stars on their uniforms at the time they became minister; Jang had only three. Three months into the job, he was promoted to four stars. Six months later, he was demoted and lost a star. A month after that, he was returned his fourth star.

Kim Jong-un was using the defense minister as a kind of voodoo doll, sticking pins in it to injure the military’s pride and take the institution down a few pegs - and to see if the top brass reacted with the proper amount of loyalty and respect.

React they did. Senior officers began comparing the new leader to his father and grandfather, reminiscing of the glorious years when nothing stood against them.

At one point, Hyon Yong-chol, Kim Jong-un’s fourth defense chief, called him a “young leader” in a private conversation that was monitored or reported upon. Kim Jong-un interpreted it as a criticism. For that moment of perceived condescension, Hyon was executed. It was the first time that a North Korean defense minister was killed in office.

Pak Yong-sik, current defense minister, has been on the job for two years, making him Kim Jong-un’s longest serving defense chief. His appointment was notable as he had been serving as vice director of the Korean People’s Army’s Political Department when Kim chose him. The role of defense minister previously went mainly to the head of the Korean People’s Army’s General Staff Department.

Pak is the first former Political Department official to lead the People’s Armed Forces - and behind that decision lies Kim’s strenuous effort to plant yes men in key military roles.

BY KO SOO-SUK, LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]