U.S. may consider buying off improved NK missile capabilities

Scientists and technicians at the General Satellite Control and Command Center on the outskirts of Pyongyang watch the launch of the Unha-3 rocket from a launch site on the west coast, in the village of Tongchang-ri, about 56 kilometers (35 miles) from the Chinese border city of Dandong, North Korea, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012. North Korea successfully fired the long-range rocket on Wednesday, defying international warnings as the regime of Kim Jong Un took a big step forward in its quest to develop a nuclear missile. (Photo : AP/NEWSis)

So it has been almost one year since the world learnt about the sudden and untimely demise of Marshall Kim Jong Il, the Lodestar of the Twenty-first Century.  What has happened in North Korea over the last year, what was predicted and what was not? Perhaps, it is a good time to make some sense of the last year’s events.

Frankly, for a year of a power transition, the year 2012 was not particularly eventful. There have been some surprises, to be sure, but one is forced to admit that the second hereditary transition has gone remarkably smoothly.  When Kim Jong Il suddenly died in December 2011 it had become clear that Kim Jong Un, his third son, was to become his successor. However, Kim Jong Un’s promotion to the position of heir-designate was not made explicit in his father’s lifetime – obviously, Kim Jong Il assumed that he would survive a few more years, and therefore did not feel the need to formalize his son’s standing.

However, the lack of official status did not make the slightest difference in the end. Immediately after the death of Kim Jong Il, the entire North Korean state bureaucracy began to behave in a way that left little room for doubt – Kim Jong Un was to become the third strongman of the Kim family. No challenge to his authority was detected and in a quick succession of promotions and appointments he formally assumed power in just a few weeks following the demise of his father.

It was widely anticipated a year ago that in exercise of this power Kim Jong-un would be assisted by a group of senior signatories – not least because he was (and is) very young and also seemingly lacks the administrative experience that is a prerequisite for any aspiring dictator. Indeed, since 2010, most Pyongyangologists agreed that the future ‘regency committee’ would probably consist of Kim Jong-un’s aunt Kim Kyong-hee, her husband Chang Song-taek, and the top commander of the North Korean military Ri Yong-ho. This indeed turned out to be the case initially.

However, things did not move smoothly. Kim Kyong-hee has not been seen much of late and is believed to be seriously sick. Ri Yong-ho was suddenly relieved of all his positions in mid-July and has not been seen ever since. Meanwhile, Chang Song-taek has clearly emerged as the key figure in the ‘regency’ regime and seemingly has become the closest advisor of Kim Jong-un.

Indeed, the sudden eclipse of Ri Yong-ho was one of many signs that indicated a shift of power away from the military in favour of the party-state. During Kim Jong-il’s funeral, eight people (including Kim Jong-un himself) walked along the dead strongman’s coffin whilst it was being driven through the streets of Pyongyang atop a black 1976 Lincoln. There were four military top brass on the left and four civilian officials on the right. It is telling that all four of the generals would lose their positions within the next year – three of them disappeared without trace and may have even been imprisoned or otherwise  punished, while one was rather lucky to be transferred to a position of mild symbolic significance. Meanwhile, the four civilian men – including Kim Jong-un himself – have done perfectly well.

Not only the top brass, but lower-level generals suffered a bit. There are persistent rumors in Pyongyang that some generals were even executed. Irrespectively of whether it is really the case, we have seen a number of military commanders being ousted from key positions. The ongoing reshuffle of military commanders has not produced much impact on the policy line of the country as yet. It has often been stated that the purged generals were hardliners, this claim however seems to be based on a common sensical arguments – and hence it is not possible to know whether it is true or not. At any rate, the decline of the military in the power structure has yet to have much of an impact on North Korea’s observable policies.

This is of course not to say that North Korean policy has remained constant and unchanging within the first year without Kim Jong-il. The most dramatic turns took place in the summer when, for a brief while, it appeared that Kim Jong Un had become serious about reforming his country in line with what is usually referred to as the ‘Chinese path’.

On the 28th June, Kim Jong-un authorized some reforms in agriculture which were similar to the reforms undertaken in late 1970s China. According to the plan, 30 percent of the harvest was to be left at the disposal of farmers and it also became possible to create family-based production units in villages. At the same time there was also talk about the coming reforms in industrial management and even in the banking system. This was not mere hearsay, since in mid-September some foreign diplomats were unofficially briefed about these plans.

However, something happened, and the reforms were either cancelled or postponed in early October. Instead, North Korean propaganda began to churn out eulogies to the greatness of Marshall Kim Jong-un and his martial abilities – it has been stated for example that at the age of seven he was already an accomplished marksman and a superb driver. This does not mean of course that reforms will never happen. As a matter fact, the as yet aborted reforms are clearly an indication that there are elements within the leadership in Pyongyang – probably including the Young Marshall himself – who are not opposed in principle to reformist policies. However, for the time being at least, it appears that there has been a reset in Pyongyang and the North Korean train continues at present to faithfully follow the rails laid by Kim Jong-il.

On the international front, we saw business as usual. The bellicose rhetoric continues to emanate from Pyongyang, and two missile launches – in April and December – were undertaken. The North Korean leadership is clearly unhappy about their growing dependency on China, and therefore would like to see aid from other countries – i.e. the US and South Korea – resume as soon as possible. Presidential elections in both countries have also given Pyongyang reason to hope that relations with Washington and with Seoul can be started anew – after the immediate rounds of obligatory ‘tough response’ to the December missile launch will be over.

In the case of the US, these expectations are not particularly well founded: nobody in the US diplomatic establishment is eager to talk to the North Koreans. However, this position might change eventually. After all, the seemingly successful December launch demonstrated that North Korea has developed a significant ICBM capability, and hence should not be ignored. So, after going through all the usual notions (talks of sanctions, UN resolution and other pompous but meaningless acts), the US might consider negotiations aimed at, essentially, buying off the North Korean missile capabilities – at least, this is what the Pyongyang decision makers hope for.

In the short term, however, their major expectations are related to the coming changes in the South. Over the last couple of years it has become evident that Lee Myung-bak’s North Korean policy was perceived as a failure – or at best an unsuccessful experiment – by the average South Korean voter. As a result, it seems highly likely that a new administration in Seoul will take a softer-line toward North Korea. In practice this will probably mean that South Korea will resume unilateral and unconditional aid to the North, even though the scale of this aid is not going to be as large as it used to in the years of 2002-7 – at the height of the Sunshine Policy.

So what should we expect from the next year? North Korea is an exceptionally mercurial state, and dramatic changes usually come out of the blue, but it right now we should probably not expect anything dramatic to happen soon. As is always the case with power transitions in dictatorships, some generals and civilian dignitaries are likely to disappear, and we might even see them openly criticized for their revisionist deviations or even espionage activities. If the expected aid from Washington, but especially Seoul, is slow to arrive, there will probably be some shootings, shellings and other small-scale military actions. These are after all a tried and tested way to remind the world of North Korea’s existence and the anger that is produced in Pyongyang by a delay in payment. There is also a reasonable chance that North Korea will test another nuclear device.

There might also be moderate reforms as well – after all, it is not impossible that the so-called ‘June 26th Measures’ will be implemented in certain parts of the country. However, it is very likely that we will see more of the same, the time of dramatic upheavals might be drawing nearer, but they are still not on the horizon (at least this author cannot see them as yet).

One Response to U.S. may consider buying off improved NK missile capabilities

  1. Pingback: 1 Year After KJI Passing. | 동북아경 (N.E.A.T.)

Search in Site