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    Korea
     Feb 18, 2005
Military holds the key
By Yoel Sano

Whoever rules North Korea must rule its army.

Despite all the talk of tremors and instability in the North Korean regime, the cardinal principle is that even if its leader Kim Jong-il were killed or deposed, the Korean People's Army (KPA) would remain firmly entrenched in the ruling system, and any change would be limited. Though some dissident generals reportedly have fled to China, Kim and the military apparently are secure in their power. Ultimately, the military holds the key to resolving the nuclear dispute, and to bringing about the long-term transformation of North Korea.

Kim Jong-il depends on the military for his rule, and giving up nukes could jeopardize his grip on power.

This month North Korea held a major conference in Pyongyang to reinforce the country's songun (military first) policy. This was the first in a series of public events planned for 2005 designed to rally support for the regime as it celebrates the 60th anniversary of liberation from Japanese rule in August, and the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the ruling Korean Workers Party (KWP) in October. More important, however, the conference reflects the increasing power and influence of the KPA, which has risen significantly since Kim Jong-il took over the country after the death of his father, Korea's founder, the "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung, in 1994. Indeed, North Korea has seen something of a "coup by stealth" during the past decade, as the military has accumulated more authority. As such, regardless of what happens to Kim Jong-il - in the context of heightened rumors about his regime falling apart - the KPA will continue to wield influence over North Korea for some time to come.

Military rule under Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il rules North Korea in his capacity as chairman of the National Defense Commission, supreme commander of the KPA, and general secretary of the ruling KWP. Of the three posts, the first two are the most important, since they put him in charge of the military. Of Kim's 87 public appearances in 2004, some two-thirds were military-related, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, and this figure is typical for every year since Kim has ruled the country. Although the KWP is still important, the "military first" policy means that the army has superseded the party.

The KPA is by far the strongest force in North Korea, and is the only group that can truly challenge Kim's rule. Also, North Korea is the most militarized country in the world, with 1.1 million troops out of a total population of 23 million (almost 5%). The military officially consumes 15.5% of gross domestic product (GDP), and unofficially more than 30%, according to estimates by the South Korean Defense Ministry. Therefore, whoever rules North Korea must control the KPA. Given that there have been at least two coup attempts against Kim - and mindful of the fact that the United States' invasion of Iraq was made easier by betrayals within the Iraqi military - Kim must keep a close eye on the KPA.

Multiple agencies watch the military
Kim Jong-il cannot take military support for granted. He has had to cultivate personnel carefully. In fact, when Kim Il-sung died, many observers believed that Kim Jong-il was so disliked by the army - owing to his allegedly pampered and decadent lifestyle, and his lack of military service - that he would quickly be deposed in a coup. Furthermore, the military was still dominated by aging hardliners who were former comrades of Kim Il-sung, and had fought with him against the Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria during the 1930s and against the South Koreans and the US during the Korean War (1950-53). However, as the conservative old guard gradually passed away, Kim consolidated his grip on the military by promoting key loyalists to top positions. He has promoted more than 1,100 generals since 1992, taking the total to about 1,400. Consequently, the North Korean military must have one of the highest generals-to-troops ratios in the world. Kim was thus able to remain in power, but the military's influence over him seems to have stepped up a few gears compared with its influence over his father.

Kim Jong-il today controls the KPA as head of the National Defense Commission (NDC), which consists of his key supporters, such as the chief of the KPA general staff, Vice Marshal Kim Yong-chun, and the defense minister, Vice Marshal Kim Il-chol. The commission's first vice chairman is Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok, who also is head of the military's General Political Bureau, which monitors the behavior of all military personnel, especially senior officers. Jo's two deputies at the bureau are generals Hyon Chol-hae and Pak Jae-gyong, who accompany Kim Jong-il on virtually all his public appearances, underscoring the importance he places in them. Another key supporter almost always seen at Kim's side is General Ri Myong-su, the director of the general staff's Operations Bureau, who is one of the younger generation (the others are all in their 70s).

Kim Jong-il is also protected by the State Security Agency and the General Security Bureau, which have eliminated potential opponents to his rule. The multiple agencies all watch the military and one another, giving Kim extra protection from would-be coup plotters and assassins. In addition, the region surrounding Pyongyang is controlled by the 3rd Army Corps, headed by Vice Marshal Jang Song-u, the eldest brother of Kim's sister's husband, Jang Song-taek. Pyongyang itself has its own defense forces, headed by yet another Kim loyalist. As such, it is virtually impossible for any military force to march into Pyongyang and overthrow or arrest Kim, unless they have the support of the people in charge of the security agencies and the top brass.

Previous 'coups' have failed
Despite Kim's firm grip on the military, there have been repeated rumors about foiled coup attempts in North Korea. This is hardly surprising, given the country's dire economic situation - with reports of mass starvation, and industry falling into disuse and disrepair. Small wonder, then, that even amid tight security there have been at least two military coup attempts in the past 15 years.

The first attempt reportedly took place in 1991 or 1992, when Kim Il-sung was still alive. According to reports at the time, around a dozen generals trained in the Soviet Union and influenced by the concept of perestroika (restructuring) planned to assassinate the two Kims and implement radical modernization of North Korea. However, the plot was discovered, and the generals were reportedly executed (some rumors say they were burned alive at the stake in front of a military audience to warn others of the consequences of disloyalty).

The second attempt occurred in 1995, in the first year of Kim Jong-il's rule. According to North Korea military expert Joseph S Bermudez Jr, officers in the 6th Army Corps based in North Hamgyong province bordering China (the area worst-hit by the famine) developed coup plans - possibly in cooperation with elements in the neighboring 7th Army Corps - to march on Pyongyang, with hopes that the mutiny would find support from top generals in the capital. The plot was reportedly foiled by the 6th Corps commander, Kim Yong-chun, who was rewarded by being promoted to chief of the general staff later that year.

Since those attempts, there have been occasional rumors of military dissent, but nothing to suggest a full-scale coup in the making. In September 1997, according to South Korea's intelligence service, General Ri Bong-won, a deputy head of the Northern military's General Political Bureau, was executed in Pyongyang along with agriculture secretary So Gwan-hui for espionage and treachery on behalf of Seoul. Secretary So was blamed for sabotaging North Korea's agriculture system and creating the famine. A year later, Kim Yong-ryong, the deputy head of the State Security Agency, was dismissed after making highly critical comments about the regime and calling for reform. However, since the late 1990s, there have been fewer rumors of coup attempts. Reports that about 130 generals have fled to China in recent years suggest that dissident commanders are voting with their feet rather than attempting to seize power.

Iraq war showed need for domestic security
Some observers believe that a massive explosion at the railway station in Ryongchon last April 22 - just hours after Kim Jong-il's train passed through the town after his visit to China - was an assassination plot. Kim himself may have thought so, which would explain the sudden dismissal of public security minister Choe Ryong-su, who had been in office less than a year at that time. Choe's appointment in July 2003 itself suggested that Kim was too concerned about domestic security to leave it to the previous incumbent, Paek Hak-rim, an 85-year-old veteran associate of Kim Il-sung. Also that summer, Kim Jong-il promoted three generals in charge of military security units. Coming so soon after reports that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard had struck a deal with US commanders to allow American troops to enter Baghdad unopposed, it appears that Kim was taking no chances.

Nonetheless, the commanders of North Korea's most heavily armed units - the frontline 1st, 2nd and 5th Army Corps deployed along the border with South Korea - have remained in place for most of the past decade, suggesting that Kim has sufficient faith in them. By contrast, many authoritarian leaders frequently rotate commanders, to prevent them from acting as regional warlords.

Reformist coup or conservative coup?
If a military coup eventually were to occur, it would likely fall into one of two categories. The first is a reformist or progressive coup, designed to liberalize North Korea's political system and completely modernize its economy through military-led development and greater contacts with the outside world. A possible role model would be the coup carried out in South Korea in May 1961 by General Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country for the next 18 years. Park is widely credited with bringing about the country's development, although he ruled as a dictator and failed to liberalize South Korea.

A coup of this kind in North Korea would most likely be instigated by the KPA's mid-level officers or lower-ranked generals, who would feel they had nothing more to gain from the status quo and would prefer to see the backs of the existing top brass and Kim Jong-il. It is conceivable that such leaders could form a secret society within the military. In South Korea's armed forces, a secret society known as the Hanahoe ("One Mind") group launched a coup in 1980, after president Park's assassination. However, given the tightness of security in the North, the plotters would probably need the tacit support of the top generals to succeed.

The other kind of military coup that could occur is a conservative or reactionary coup, designed to preserve the status quo from rapid and potentially destabilizing changes. If North Korea's tentative free-market reforms, launched in July 2002, falter, or if Kim Jong-il makes too many concessions to the United States on North Korea's nuclear-weapons program, he could come to be seen as putting "the system" and indeed the country in jeopardy. Under such a scenario, the top leaders of the KPA could seek to overthrow him, just as former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was briefly deposed by conservative KGB and military-political hardliners in August 1991.

The military and the nuclear dispute
The Korean People's Army holds the key to resolving the ongoing nuclear dispute with the United States. Kim Jong-il has pursued the nuclear-weapons program as a way of deterring the US from attacking or invading North Korea and bringing about regime change, as happened in Iraq. In this regard, he is backed by the military, which quite logically does not want to face defeat or destruction at the hands of the US - especially after witnessing the "shock and awe" of the Iraq war. Possession of nukes therefore keeps Kim and the military in power.

If Kim were to carry out "complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantling" (CVID) of North Korea's nukes - which is Washington's stated goal - he would almost certainly face opposition from the KPA.

North Korea's foreign policy is conducted, at least in public, by officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who are seen generally as more moderate than the KPA. However, it is highly likely that the military can veto certain initiatives, or can simply undercut diplomacy by carrying out military maneuvers such as violations of South Korea's territorial waters, or by test-firing short-range missiles at sensitive occasions. Most likely, Kim has to find a balance between the military and the diplomats, although he also benefits from this tension by appearing to be willing to "talk nice" while at the same time displaying hawkish signs. The result is an occasionally erratic and unpredictable foreign policy, which makes Pyongyang seem to foreign countries too unreliable to deal with.

Generational shift within the military
If the United States wants to persuade the North Korean military to get rid of Kim Jong-il and/or nuclear weapons, it has to persuade generals that their privileged positions will be preserved in exchange - or that they have more to lose by sticking with the status quo than by opting for change. A key question is whether a gradual generational shift within the KPA will lead to greater moderation. Top commanders such as Jo Myong-rok, Kim Il-chol, Hyon Chol-hae and Pak Jae-gyong are all in their 70s and have either fought in the devastating Korean War or can remember it from their youth. Distrust of the United States is deeply ingrained. Although Kim Jong-il has slowly been elevating generals in their 50s and early 60s who have no combat experience, years of anti-US propaganda have similarly hardened their attitude toward the US.

Nonetheless, younger generals may indeed be getting fed up with the status quo. Last year, reports emerged that Major-General O Se-uk, 43, had fled North Korea to Japan, and thence to the United States. O Se-uk is the son of General O Kuk-ryol - who in the 1980s was Kim Jong-il's closest military confidant - and the grandson of O Jung-hup, a revered anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter. Although O Kuk-ryol, 75, rarely has appeared in recent years, he is believed to serve as head of the party's Covert Operations Bureau - which makes his son's defection all the more significant. Furthermore, the New York Times, citing an unidentified South Korean journalist, reported last November that O Se-uk was one of some 130 North Korean generals who had fled their country in recent years. Most of them had gone to China. Given the lack of changes at the top levels of the KPA, it is reasonable to assume that these defectors were lower-ranked, younger commanders. If so, it is discouraging for opponents of the regime that those who could make a difference are choosing to flee.

Other highly tentative signs of the armed forces' willingness to embrace change include the growing importance of military-dominated "trading companies", some of which are headed by top officers. These entities are engaged in domestic industrial activities and they export minerals and weapons to developing countries, for the purpose of earning foreign currency. According to North Korea expert Selig Harrison, the largest such corporation, Chung Woon San, is headed by Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok. Some observers speculate that as generals focus more on their business activities - as has been the case in China and other Asian countries - they will have less reason to go to war. Beyond that, these "trading companies" may form the nuclei of North Korean chaebol (conglomerates) of the kind that drove the rapid expansion of South Korea's economy.

Military will remain a force, post-Kim Jong-il
Most likely, given the military's strength in North Korea's system, it will remain a powerful force no matter who rules the country next. If Kim Jong-il is assassinated, a military junta consisting of his top officers would likely take power. If one of Kim's sons eventually succeeds him, he will need to rely on the military. If North Korea collapses altogether, the South's unification minister - who will establish and run an emergency administration in the North, according to Seoul's contingency plans - will still need to rely on the KPA to maintain order. The US experience in Iraq has shown that dissolving the military and security services leads to chaos, and may have forced some commanders to join the vast Iraqi insurgency campaign. Mindful of the need to avoid this, South Korea will likely depend on the KPA, at least in the early stages of any occupation.

This might have negative consequences for the eventual democratization of North Korea, especially if military leaders became unofficial "warlords" once the regime had gone.

Yoel Sano has worked for publishing houses in London, providing political and economic analysis, and has been following Northeast Asia for many years.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)


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