There is a tendency to view North Korea as potentially only one step away from aggression in the region. The South Koreans appear to be on a perpetual alert. Japan goes on a national defense status every time Pyongyang prepares to launch any form of ballistic missile. The Chinese and Russians scramble their air defense assets and the U.S. Pacific fleet steams toward the Korean peninsula at flank speed to be in combat position as anti-missile batteries from Alaska to Hawaii tilt skyward. And this is just the attention sought by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
As North Korea moves into its third generation of leadership by the Kim family, there has been a determined effort to give the impression that the transition has been seamless. After a bizarre orchestration of public mourning that included massive weeping crowds of citizens, civilian and military, the 28 – 29 year old Kim Jong-un has been carefully introduced into public life. A façade of government leadership is maintained by a triumvirate of elder statesmen acting as de facto head of state, premier, and defense chairman. Real power resides in and through the new Supreme Leader and what is effectively a small body of advisors and decision-makers not dissimilar to the standing committee of the politburo existing in China.
Jong-un has not been involved in any of the fallout that accompanied the failed launch of the North Korean satellite in April. The multi-stage rocket effort was especially provocative as it came shortly after the Americans in February tried to use the recommencement of food shipments as an indication of good will toward the new young leader. The intent of the “old guard” in Pyongyang was to show a continuation of their ICBM development program under the guise of a satellite launch. It was obvious the Obama Administration’s hope for a reduction in tensions was due for failure. If the satellite launch had been successful, the new leader would have been credited. The missile failed and as a result Kim Jong-un simply became uninvolved.
Instead a campaign was begun by June to show “The Great Successor,” as Kim Jong-un is now called, was well occupied enjoying his summer by attending formal remembrances of his father and grandfather along with assorted happy social events. The most distinguished of the latter was a recent presentation that included Walt Disney characters to an obviously delighted TV audience that included a beaming Jong-un and an attractive woman who was variously described by the foreign press as possibly his sister or a long lost flame of ten years previously. The betting favored the latter lady who had gone on to become the lead singer in a North Korean rock band. A hand-picked audience of 20-30 year olds with a sprinkle of uniforms among them clapped their approval of the show along with their new leader. The signal was clear: for the most part “The Great Successor” was to be kept out of the complicated business of government until the stalwarts of the politburo wanted otherwise.
Who is running things in Pyongyang? The answer is that it is the same group that took over as caretakers in the post-stroke days of Kim Jong-il. On the top of that list is the latter’s brother-in-law Jang Song-taek and his wife, Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyung-hui. They acted as regents for Kim Jung-un before the Dear Leader’s death, and have now an even more firm hold on the Kim family dynasty. Aunt Kim Kyung-hui has been actively involved in Kim-family interests for several decades and is a considerable power-player in her own right. Her husband has long had an influential political and strategic role. He works very closely with the newly promoted Vice Marshall Choe Ryong-hae, who keeps a sharp eye on internal labor issues and how they affect national stability.
There are two men who dominate internal security — one for the civilian side and the other with particular attention to the military. They are respectively, U Tong-chuk and Kim Won-hong. These two exercise command over the top echelon of the entire internal security apparat and are among the most powerful of the governing oligarchy. The physical security of the entire leadership group is under the watchful eye of Yun Jong-rin, who from time to time knocks heads with the two previously mentioned security chiefs.
Perhaps the intellectually most influential within the inner circle is Kang Sak-ju. He was Kim Jong-il’s principal foreign affairs advisor and the lead negotiator in international issues. Kang works closely with Ry Yong-ho, who is considered key in national security and military strategic matters as head of the DPRK military General Staff.
There are several other members of the top leadership group who now guide everything done in the name of the new leader, Kim Jong-un, but these mentioned represent what for the moment is the first tier. If any changes are noticed, the increased influence of “The Great Successor” and his aunt and uncle will be under way. In the meantime the new leader has been kept busy by matters not overly taxing to his youthful and relatively hedonistic interests. There are signs, however, that Kim Jong-un may be feeling his way toward greater personal authority.
Kim Jong-un’s record during his Swiss schooling indicated a consistent lack of scholarly interests. He arrived a spoiled child and his European experience appeared to change him little. There has occurred a recent circumstance in which the new boy on the block — perhaps at the urging of his protective advisors, his aunt and uncle — has exerted unexpected authority. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister for Foreign Affairs, Fu Ying, was sent specifically to Pyongyang in April to seek to persuade the new leader of the inappropriateness of launching the satellite. Minister Fu reportedly was surprised at the way his recommendation was personally dismissed by Kim Jong-un.
In Beijing the rumor spread quickly in the Foreign Office that Kim Jong-un actually might have a mind of his own — though most agreed that was still speculation. As this circumstance had never been indicated before, the diplomatic community has been left in a bit of confusion and wary about the future. The question now exists whether the Disney-loving Kim Jong-un, simply a tool of his counselors, is preferable to the one that enjoyed dismissing the Chinese vice foreign minister. Or is there no separation between the two Kim Jong-un? Only time will dictate which personality dominates. Unfortunately, none of his keepers is talking.