Reading North Korean tea leaves

Editor’s note: Global Public Square speaks with Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University, about a surprise change in military leadership, nuclear plans and a mystery woman in North Korea


Reports say that North Korea’s army chief, Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, has been removed from all posts because of illness. What do you think is behind the move, and how much of a surprise is this?


Ri Yong Ho was widely considered number three in the ruling power structure at the time of Kim Jong Il’s death, and his removal suggests a significant shakeup in the hierarchy as Kim Jong Un distances himself from his father’s establishment and asserts his own power.


So what might this move say about the Kim Jong Un regime?


Kim Jong Un continues to move his regime away from the older generation of power, with possibly less dependence on the military old guard in particular. The distribution of personal and institutional power under Kim Jong Un should become clearer as other shifts emerge in the months ahead.


You’ve just come back from North Korea. Were you able to get any sense of the mood in the country about Kim Jong Un’s reign so far?


There’s a strong sense that Kim Jong Un is increasingly in control.


As his father is elevated to “Eternal General Secretary” alongside grandfather Kim Il Sung, “The Eternal President,” slogans abound declaring Kim Jong Un the new “Great Leader,” “Sun of Military First Korea,” and so forth. Meanwhile there are striking signs of affluence in Pyongyang, including brand new 45-story apartment buildings and an abundance of luxury cars. On the other hand, conditions in the countryside, which I traveled through extensively, look as grim as ever. Presumably the new wealth comes from Chinese investment, but the economic gap between the capital and countryside is truly striking.


Satellite imagery released by CNN last week shows what is believed to be ramped up work at the Yongbyon light water reactor. How much of a concern should such work be, and do you see any signs of hope that the Six-Party talks could be restarted in the near future?


It seems to me unlikely that North Korea will focus much on nuclear weapons now that it feels confident in its existing minimum deterrent.


They still insist on being recognized as a nuclear weapons state, making any near-term resolution of the nuclear issue very difficult.


The North Koreans have little interest in the Six-Party talks as such, and would prefer direct talks with the United States. After the collapse of the February 29 agreement, however, they don’t seem in any particular hurry to renegotiate with the U.S.


What would you like to see the U.S. and others do now?


First and foremost, the United States and its allies must recognize that the Kim Jong Un regime isn’t going away any time soon. A combination of military deterrence and rising, if unevenly distributed, affluence gives the regime new found strength and stability. It’s still a very poor and extremely isolated country, neither on the verge of collapse nor ready for serious reform. It can muddle through in this fashion for some time to come.


The best hope for real change is to try to bring North Korea out of its isolation, and that can only be achieved through more engagement, taking into account that the nuclear issue will be resolved over the long term and not immediately. Continued isolation will certainly not bring change. A patient policy with low near-term expectations can move North Korea in the right direction.


There’s been much speculation this past week over the identity of the woman photographed with Kim Jong Un. Analysts seem to believe it likely that it’s his wife. What can we read into her recent public appearances, and is there any sign that North Korea might start to become more open?


The woman may or may not be Kim Jong Un’s wife or consort. Kim Jong Il was never publicly identified as having a wife, and fathered children with at least three different women, none of whom was legally married to him, as far as we know. The private lives of top leaders in North Korea are largely secret and almost never discussed publicly. I was struck on my last visit that my North Korean interlocutors didn’t know that Kim Il Sung had a second wife, after Kim Jong Il’s mother died when he was a child. Nor did they know that Kim Jong Il’s half-brother, Kim Byung-il, is the current North Korean ambassador to Poland!


If the “woman in the photo” is publicly identified as Kim Jong Un’s wife, or if any wife of Kim Jong Un is identified, this would be quite a departure for the North Korean media, and perhaps a sign of opening up at least about the private life of the leader. There has been no “first lady” in North Korea since Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Il Sung’s first wife, was elevated posthumously to “Mother of Korea” in the growing cult of the Kims in the 1960s.


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Topics: AsiaNorth Korea



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