14 May 2013

Reading the Tea Leaves in a Cup of Black Coffee.

North Korea has another new Minister of the People’s Armed Forces. In a May 13 Rodong Sinmun report on Kim Jong Un attending a performance by the (not quite world famous) Song and Dance Ensemble of the Korean People's Internal Security Forces (KPISF), among those listed as attending was Jang Jong Nam, minister of the People's Armed Forces. Jang has apparently replaced Kim Kyok Sik, who only took the post in November 2012. It is not out of the ordinary for North Korea to reveal reshuffles through simple passing mentions to new titles, and during a period of consolidation such as that Kim Jong Un is currently going through, frequent changes among top officials should not be seen as all that unexpected either. Nonetheless, I along with all of the other North Korea watchers, have pulled out our various sources of Pyongyangologist divination and spent the day seeking meaning and signals toward the future from the change up.

As much as I enjoy such speculation, it is like reading tea leaves in a cup of black coffee. There may not even be any leaves to read. It took Kim Jong Il more than three years to consolidate his rule, and that was after walking for years side by side with his father, and building up his own network of influence long before his father’s myocardial infarction. From 1994 through 1998, there were numerous reports, rumors and suppositions about purges, officials lined up on the hills outside Pyongyang and shot, and both rumored and actual defections. It may be good to be king, but no one ever said it was easy. So K3 is shaking up his defense ministry again, and bringing in a bit younger blood.

What can we know? From North Korean media, we know Jang was given his first star in April, 2002, when he was promoted to Major General. Nine years later, he earned his second star as Lieutenant General. The picture in the Rodong Sinmun appears to show him now a Colonel General, with three stars (see this crop from JoongAng Ilbo), though it is not clear when he got the other star (or the promotion to minister of KPA). In July 2011, less than three months after getting his second star, the KCNA referred to Jang as a “spokesman for the Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army (KPA).” Jang warned at the time “the South Korean regime's grave provocation risking war deserves a merciless retaliation from the KPA.”

Jang was called on again to give a similar statement a few days later at a 100,000-strong anti-South Korean President Lee Myung Bak rally in Pyoingyang. North Korean media on that occasion cited Jang as saying “Now that south Korean confrontation maniacs without equals in the world dared to perpetrate such extreme provocation as not ruling out even a war against the DPRK, there remains between the north and the south only physical settlement of returning fire for fire. The powerful revolutionary army of Mt. Paektu has never made an empty talk. It is the spirit and courage of the KPA to deal merciless deadly blows at the enemies till they are wiped out to the last man. Those who do harm to the dignity of our leadership will not be able to go scot-free on this land and in the sky.”

A few months later, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il would be dead, and Kim Jong Un would take over as the paramount leader in North Korea. At a December 2012 memorial for Kim Jong Il, Jang was called by the North Korean press the commander of the First Corps of the KPA (which oversees the southeast portion of North Korea, from the DMZ just east of Panmunjom to the coast, and north to Wonsan). On behalf of the soldiers of the First Corps, Jang “pledged to always remember the trust given by the supreme commander who named the unit corps of tigers of Mt. Paektu, saying the corps will make the enemies be stunned by its gunfire of annihilating them and turn each ravine into their death pitfall when the hour of decisive battle comes.” Jang, along with the other military officers present, also renewed their pledge of loyalty to Kim Jong Un.

Not much to go on when it comes to tea leaves. Yes, Kim Kyok Sik was seen as a hardliner, and purportedly responsible for the ChonAn sinking and the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do. However, the few official comments by Jang do little to reassure that he has any greater love for South Korea, its leadership, or trans-DMZ détente. But then, public statements seem to have little relation to reality in North Korea. Except when they do. Ah, the murky leaves again. Kim Kyok Sik had his own series of ups and downs, with a few demotions along the way (North Korea Leadership Watch has a good brief bio if you are interested in the details). In other words, his position didn’t necessarily mean that he was ascendant or overly influencing the decisions of Kim Jong Un. He was moved around like other officials as part of a complex and somewhat opaque balancing act, as Kim Jong Un manages the various elite interests in North Korea.

If there are any leaves to read, they may be back at the WPK and SPA sessions, when North Korea made it clear that it was pursuing a two-pronged policy approach, paying equal weight to economic development and nuclear weapons. If Kim Jong un does intend to tinker with the North Korean economy, he will have to slowly ease it out from under the control of the generals (and there are signs this process is already underway). But he cannot simply pull the plug on their finances and personal enrichment. No Kim is immortal. So he will have to give the military something in return, and that appears to be the nuclear weapons. There may well be a parallel process of military modernization and professionalization in North Korea, mirroring the shift in China after Jiang Zemin pulled the industrial rug out from under the people’s Liberation Army in the 1990s. At its center will be North Korea’s space program, and continued work on the civilian and military nuclear programs.

But there I go again, seeking tea leaves in the sludge at the bottom of a stiff espresso.