The Generals Who Will Really Rule North Korea
New North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un shakes hands with generals after paying his respects to his father and former leader Kim Jong Il, lying in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang
The policy under Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s late Dear departed Leader, could not have had a name that was more straightforward: “military first politics.” For most of Kim’s 17-year reign as dictator, North Korea’s military — the Korean People’s Army, KPA — got pretty much what it wanted. Even during the crippling famine, which killed tens of thousands in the late ’90s, food was diverted to the military. Better a soldier with a full stomach even if almost everyone else is starving, Kim seemed to think. “His position toward the military was one of weakness,” says Christopher Hill, formerly the chief U.S. negotiator to the six-party nuclear talks.
Little wonder, then, that nearly everyone who tries to figure out what is happening in the world’s most isolated regime now believes that, in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s sudden death last Saturday, it is the military brass who will be firmly in control of the country, even as the young Kim Jong Un formally becomes what the Koreans call the suryong (supreme leader). “The military,” says Hill, ”will clearly be a critical factor in determining whether the [Kim] family dynasty survives.”
(See “After Kim Jong Il: A Look at the Kim Family Tree.”)
Some analysts have argued that the North Korean brass were already deeply resentful that Kim Jong Un, in his late 20s, was last year given four stars and a position as vice chairman of the central defense commission “without having served a day in the military,” as Victor Cha, who ran Asia policy on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, recently put it. “Such a system,” Cha believes, “simply cannot hold.”
This may overstate the regime’s fragility, precisely because it underrates just how deeply rooted the Kim family dynasty is in North Korea, and how deeply the KPA’s interests are aligned with its continuation. The key man to watch now, analysts say, is Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, chief of the General Staff in Pyongyang and, like Jong Un, a chairman of the central military commission, the key military policy-making body in the country.
(See photos of mourning the death of North Korean leader.)
Ri, 69, is a third-generation elite who over the years established a close relationship with Kim Jong Il, and over the last two yeas has been photographed at various public events seated alongside the late Dear Leader. He is also said to be close to Kim’s sister and his brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek, the man who some believe is now Kim Jong Un’s “regent,” the power behind the throne who will actually be calling the shots. And Ri is also a graduate of the Kim Il Sung Military Academy, as is Jong Un. Diplomats and intelligence analysts believe there is no scenario under which the young Kim could have been elevated to the position of successor over the last two years without the brass’s approval. “He’s there because the military officials believe they can control him, at least for several years, and there’s no other institution that can hold the place together,” says one East Asia-based intelligence official. Today, in fact, Reuters — quoting an unnamed official with “close ties” to Beijing and Pyongyang — reported that a “collective leadership” arrangement has already been agreed to by Kim Jong Un and top military officials. (TIME has been unable to confirm this.) “The military has pledged its allegiance to Kim Jong Un,” Reuters quotes its source as saying.
And — most likely — vice versa. The military’s powerful position in North Korean society can hardly be overestimated. Not only is it the overseer of the country’s nuclear program — the ultimate guarantor of Pyongyang’s security — it is also its largest employer. There are over 1.1 million soldiers in the KPA’s five branches, or nearly 20% of the male population between the ages of 17 and 54. It is also, therefore, the country’s most powerful economic entity, the largest consumer of goods in the country, as well as an exporter of missiles and nuclear technology via the shadowy “Second Economic Committee,” run by a man about whom little is known in the outside word — Park Se Bong — except for his reputed close ties with the ruling Kim clan. “Again, the boy would not be in this position if people like Park had strenuously objected,” believes the intelligence source. “People are reacting too much to the so-called suddenness of Kim Jong Il’s death. This is a guy who had a severe stroke three years ago. For a while there he looked like death warmed over. The idea that the regime didn’t have its ducks in a row, that everyone assumed the Dear Leader was going to be around for another decade or more, doesn’t withstand scrutiny. And the ‘regime’ very much includes the military.”