New Era, New Challenges: North Korea Analysis on Virgin Soil

By | September 29, 2014 | No Comments

Kim Jong-un, photographed at the time of North Korea's successful satellite launch in December 2012. | Image: KCNA

Kim Jong-un, photographed at the time of North Korea’s successful satellite launch in December 2012. | Image: KCNA

Readers of Sino-NK will scarcely be unaware of the main stories covered by the Seoul-based website New Focus in recent months: the purge of Jang Sung-taek (one of many articles on the subject here) and intra-elite struggle between Hwang Pyong-so and Kim Won-hong. It is all highly revealing, of course, one of the best opportunities in the history of North Korean Studies to know in some detail about political conflict inside the Pyongyang corridors of power. However, there is a challenge to be faced. When presented with such a volume of data, the reader must address a pressing question: Within what contexts and historical frameworks are we to read these extraordinary tales? — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

New Era, New Challenges: North Korea Analysis on Virgin Soil

by Christopher Green

North Korean Studies is being dragged kicking and screaming toward a new dawn. The volume of information emerging from within the country’s political class is rising fast, so that what was once a trickle of revelatory data entering the public domain via the likes of Hwang Jang-yop and Lee Han-yong in the 1990s has become, comparatively speaking at least, a torrent flooding down upon the Internet-savvy public.

But there is a flipside to this embarrassment of riches; namely, that it pours fuel on the fire of the human tendency to perceive something as new when, in truth, it was simply not visible before. That is why, now more than ever, theory has a role to play. It is apparently all too easy to forget that while North Korea might be a contemporary subject of inquiry, politics is as old as human civilization itself. By coming at the onrushing deluge of data armed with the bayonet of historical awareness and a shield built of theoretical flair, conclusions will be more robust. They may still be wrong, of course; however, they will be grounded, and this ought to preclude wild flights of sensationalist fancy.

To illustrate the point, let’s look at two recent stories that have captured the international imagination, filling the SNS world with a cornucopia of responses. Though it need not have been so, it happens that both tales were published by New Focus, the organization run by former United Front Department propagandist poet Jang Jin-sung. The first concerns the late 2013 purge of Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Sung-taek, while the second deals with a more recent case of intra-elite conflict between two senior elites, Hwang Pyong-so and Kim Won-hong. As I will demonstrate, existing scholarship on the “politics of authoritarianism” offers a plausible explanation for both.

In happier times: Jang Sung-taek with his brother-in-law, the late Kim Jong-il, and visiting CEO of Orascom Telecom Media and Technology, Naguib Sawiris. | Image: KCNA

In happier times: Jang Sung-taek with his brother-in-law, the late Kim Jong-il, and the visiting CEO of Orascom Telecom Media and Technology, Naguib Sawiris. | Image: KCNA

Case 1) The Fate of a Guardian: Jang’s Inevitable Demise | Very much contrary to the shock, excitement and, for some, confusion that greeted it, Jang Sung-taek’s downfall was entirely predictable. To counter the obvious response that hindsight is always 20/20, which is true, let it be known that at least one South Korean scholar told me over breakfast back in January 2012, with Kim Jong-un on the job for barely a fortnight: “Jang Sung-taek will be gone within two years.”

The reason for that individual’s unshakable confidence in Jang’s impending demise was not rooted in uniquely North Korean causality. Rather, he was armed with a far simpler logic: that Jang, an ambitious and self-regarding individual, had been handed the quintessential poisoned chalice. He had been appointed guardian in a transitional autocracy; in other words, prince regent to an absolute monarch. History shows that very few positions come with less job security than this.

Had he been minded to look at the specific case in point, Stakhanovite political scientist Milan Svolik of the University of Illinois would have agreed with the South Korean scholar. In keeping with his assessment of authoritarian power sharing structures, the Svolikian explainer would have it that, despite the legitimating head start offered by hereditary succession, at the time of his elevation Kim Jong-un did not wield all the power in the North Korean system. Therefore, a coalition was required to sustain his rule.

The theory goes that such coalitions are a viable means of power sharing for as long as the group of individuals balancing the power of the leader is able to present a credible threat of his overthrow. A position of unconsolidated leadership coupled to the latent threat of removal drives the self-interested leader to cooperate with the ruling coalition, to placate its members and bind them into a ulitarian consensus that secures the right of the ruler to rule. Thus, power is shared.

However, the credible threat of overthrow places the leader at risk. Faced with this risk, he seeks unassailable autocratic power, which, if accomplished, by definition eliminates the threat of removal. This can only be done through what, although there are variable pretexts and styles of enforcement, are simply power grabs. These achieve three goals: they promote the power of the leader, send a message describing his power in unmistakable terms to the remainder of the contemporary political elite, and allow for the installation of replacement officials who owe their prominence to the leader’s largesse.

In sum, that theoretical process is the reason why, from the very beginning of his rule, my respected colleague believed that Jang Sung-taek’s demise was guaranteed.

Given these facts, it is obvious that the state media article explaining the charges against Jang, while fascinatingly detailed and revelatory in some senses, does not explain the root cause of his removal. For instance, to those who read it and mused, “Ah, so Jang was too close to China,” a plausible response is, “Perhaps so, but China’s influence in North Korea will not diminish; rather, the resources Jang Sung-taek once controlled will surely be reallocated, falling under the remit of another.”

Similarly, the letter Jang is said to have dispatched to the Chinese leadership outlining his plan to dominate the office of Cabinet Prime Minister is a splendid topic, and surely worthy of investigation, but one that ultimately threatens to mislead. Again, Jang’s nominally treasonous links to outside forces were not the root cause of the purge. For the root cause, one need only look to Svolik, or, credit to the progenitor, the 500-year old writings of Niccolò Machiavelli. Besides, given that Kim Jong-il had already purged Jang Sung-taek once, in 2004, does it seem plausible that he failed to tell his son and heir of the importance of keeping an eye on “the ambitious uncle,” whose arrogant confidence in his status was surely only enhanced by his membership-by-marriage of the Kim family?

This tweet from @dest_pyongyang shows the rostrum at the September 25 session of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly. Hwang Pyong-so [황병서] is at center, and Kim Won-hong [김원홍] is far right. | Image: Destination Pyongyang

This tweet from @dest_pyongyang shows the rostrum at the September 25 session of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly. Hwang Pyong-so (황병서) is at center, and Kim Won-hong (김원홍) is far right. | Image: Destination Pyongyang

Case 2) Balancing the Power of the Security Forces: Hwang vs. Kim | In the midst of all the power sharing, another key matter with which the budding autocrat must deal is that of removing space for intra-elite anti-regime collusion that could lead to its overthrow. In North Korea under Kim Jong-il, this was successfully accomplished through a complex array of overlapping security force structures, all of whom in essence spied on the others and then reported back to Kim.

Problematically, then, readers may recall that during the Jang Sung-taek purge drama it was found that Jang had been using his personal authority to build up the Ministry of People’s Security, which is (inadequately, but it’s the best we can do) usually defined as the North Korean police force. Upon Jang’s purge and execution, this body was therefore emasculated, its power diminished. This may not have made any difference to the day-to-day task of authoritarian control in society, but must have unbalanced Kim Jong-il’s delicate intra-elite surveillance structure.

One can therefore hypothesize that when Hwang Pyong-so took on the role of KPA Political Director, giving him access to the Defense Command of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces and setting the scene for his clash with Ministry of State Security chief Kim Won-hong, the “balance” was returned to the balance of power between Kim regime security forces.

Of course, there is no way to evidence the process that led to Hwang’s change of position. New Focus’ analysis is that Hwang is in the process of “stepping into the limelight,” thus revolutionizing the role of the OGD, or Organization and Guidance Department of the Party, which used to operate entirely behind the scenes as the autocrat’s “control tower,” to borrow a phrase popular south of the 38th parallel. Under this analysis, Kim Won-hong is either guilty of corruption, or simply in the way of Hwang, whose status in the regime is, New Focus reminds us, based on loyalty and purity within the existing system.

Then, what theory supports changes to this hypothesis? Well, we’ve already noted that Kim Jong-il, the primary instructor of Kim Jong-un during the latter’s succession process, was highly skilled at balancing the various North Korean security services, placing them in specifically antagonistic relationships of mutual surveillance in order to ensure that none could act autonomously to mount a coup d’etat against his regime.

Kim did not do this purely out of paranoia, of course, although autocrats do tend that way. He had not read Svolik, either. However, he surely had read Machiavelli, and knew very well that absolute monarchs run the risk of internal displacement wherever they tread. Moreover, he had personal experience of that type of threat. In 1995 he ordered the execution of a tranche of commanding officers in the 6th Corps, which attempted an unsuccessful mutiny from its base in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province (though there may well be more to the case than meets the eye). In addition to ordering the executions, Kim disbanded the corps, discharged large numbers of servicemen to effectively disarm them, and scattered the remainder to the four winds of other military units.

Would it not then be somewhat disingenuous to suggest that Kim did not tell his son of the need to balance the relative power of the security services, to ensure that none may rise up against him? The fear that by empowering one’s security forces, the ultimate guarantor of one’s power, one is also empowering the protagonists in one’s own removal is hardly unique to North Korea; it’s a timeless concern of autocrats everywhere. Thanks to Jang’s antics with the Ministry of People’s Security, a potentially dangerous gap in the surveillance structure had developed. At least we can put forward the theoretical possibility that the movement of Hwang Pyong-so was specifically intended to fill that gap. Whether Kim Jong-un moved to fill it or the experienced Hwang proposed that it be done is interesting, but in truth just a footnote in the ongoing debate about where power lies in North Korea today.

The apparently embattled Kim Won-hong is on the far right of this image, taken on September 28, 2010. | Image: KCNA

The apparently embattled Kim Won-hong is on the far right of this image, taken on September 28, 2010. | Image: KCNA

Conclusion | In the new era, it is worth taking the time to try and apply the various strands of political, economic and social theory that seem relevant to the information that emerges across the Sino-North Korean border and on down the lume wires of the world’s Internet-equipped homes, offices, and government agencies. Of course, there is no guarantee that existing theory is sufficient to explain the nature of political and social change in North Korea, which has always been a relative outlier; however, at the very least existing academia offers some plausible jumping-off points for analysis; frameworks into which the new era’s detailed, and thus all the more potentially confusing, data can perhaps be plugged.

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