North Korea: Moving Toward Chaos or Reform?

Last week’s abrupt dismissal of North Korean Army Chief of General Staff Ri Yong-ho from all party and military posts raises important questions about the direction of Kim Jong-un’s regime.

On the one hand, Kim’s ouster of Ri has sent a dramatic message to the nation – but particularly to the Korean People’s Army (KPA) -- about who is in charge. On the other hand, reports that Ri was ousted for resisting efforts to reduce the KPA’s role in the economy suggest possible divisions inside the leadership. Meanwhile, there are reports that North Korea’s 29-year-old leader hopes to take the totalitarian regime in a new direction, including by implementing Chinese-style agricultural and economic reforms. Such a move would have major implications for the North’s system.

What’s really going on? It speaks volumes about our understanding of North Korea that experts are divided about what last week’s developments mean. The many contradictory analyses of last week’s events suggest that the “Rashomon effect” is at work, with veteran experts producing substantially different but equally plausible explanations of what is afoot in North Korea.

Nevertheless, some things seem clear. North Korea’s claim that Ri, seen publicly as recently as the previous week, was dismissed for “health” reasons is hardly credible. The 69-year-old Ri was a relatively spry member of an elderly elite where death in office from old age is the norm for those who remain in the good graces of the leader. The fact that the Politburo met in emergency session on a Sunday to deal an “organizational issue” and ended up ousting Ri also suggests that this action was necessitated by highly unusual circumstances.

It is notable is that, after only seven months at the helm of North Korea, the youthful Kim Jong-un managed within just a few days to oust one of North Korea’s most senior military officers, appoint a relatively obscure corps commander to replace him, and then orchestrate his own promotion to the rank of marshal of the Korean People’s Army – the rank once held by his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

These moves followed Kim’s April appointment of Choe Ryong-hae as Vice Marshal and head of the army’s General Political Department. Choe, who has no military background and is the son of one of Kim Il-sung’s most trusted comrades, replaced the late, all-powerful Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok in this position, which oversees the political “health” of the KPA. Choe is rumored to have had a hand in Ri’s dismissal and is reportedly close to Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle by marriage and a key member of the young Kim’s ruling circle. All of these moves suggest Kim Jong-un is wasting no time in consolidating his rule.

Political rivalry may well have played a role in Ri’s ouster. Ironically, Ri’s appointment to the Politburo Standing Committee and Party Central Military Commission by Kim Jong-il in 2010 was aimed at smoothing Kim Jong-un’s rise to power by ensuring KPA support for the succession and putting a trusted military man at the young Kim’s side. Over the years, Ri had been nothing if not a loyal lieutenant. It strains credulity that an officer with a major stake in the regime’s continuity would have committed an act of disloyalty. But we should not rule out the possibility that Ri’s strong institutional commitment to the KPA might have prompted him to advise against or even resist efforts to diminish the military’s role in the economy.

Whatever the cause, last week’s developments represent a bold move by a young leader who thrives in the limelight and seems determined to put his own stamp on his country. Until now, the young Kim has largely been using his father’s playbook, implementing policies put in place by Kim Jong-il and relying on the advice of a small coterie of advisers and family members.  But since assuming power in December, Kim Jong-un has taken several steps to showcase his own, distinctive style.

He has come across as a self-confident, even cocky, leader in the mold of his grandfather. The young Kim has made it a point to be seen in the company of his troops and people in carefully staged appearances designed to enhance his image as a popular and caring figure. Unlike his father, he has delivered public speeches, and used his remarks to convey concern about the people’s welfare, including by openly dressing down officials for being insufficiently attentive to the people’s needs.  Recently, he has been seen in public with a well-coiffed and fashionably dressed young lady who may be his wife – a highly unusual step for a North Korean leader and one perhaps designed to add an additional, “human” dimension to Kim’s image

All of this may well be designed to enhance the leader’s stature and popular appeal. But it has occurred in parallel with reports that Kim wants to take the country in a new direction. There are suggestions that Kim’s emphasis on strengthening the role of the Party and Cabinet will come at the expense of the military, whose role in the economy and society has grown enormously under the regime’s “military-first” policy. Other reports claims Ri’s ouster may have been because he spoke out against efforts to remove lucrative mining contracts from the KPA’s control.

Meanwhile, North Korea is reportedly implementing agricultural reforms that bear some resemblance to those carried out in China during the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s reformist upsurge. These reforms call for a reduction in the size of the basic cooperative agricultural production unit, enhancement of small-unit decision-making power, and include provisions allowing farmers to sell production in excess of contracted amounts at market prices. In China’s case, these policies resulted in a rapid expansion of agricultural output and eventually led to the dismantling of the rural commune system.

Can this be what Kim Jong-un has in mind? This seems unlikely in a political and economic system that emphasizes rigid control and where genuine reform has been largely eschewed for fear of its implications for that control.  But if Kim Jong-un is out to confound the skeptics and pursue change, he should keep another lesson of Deng Xiaoping’s China in mind. Deng, mindful of the Chinese military’s role in the economy and of the danger of breaking the People’s Liberation Army’s “rice bowl,” crafted creative ways to allow the military to run its own enterprises, make money, and become a major stakeholder in China’s economic reforms.

If Kim Jong-un indeed dismissed Ri Yong-ho because of KPA resistance to reforms, and if Kim is seeking to pursue economic reform at the expense of the North Korean military, then he may be taking on a dangerous and potentially destabilizing challenge by trimming the KPA’s role in the economy.

Since assuming power, Kim has made clear that the “strong and prosperous nation” he aims to build will be armed with nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile. But even giving the North Korean military the wherewithal to build these systems is unlikely to make up for a reversal of a “military-first” policy that has left the KPA in charge of so much of the DPRK’s economy. The generals will not be happy.