Sunday, September 12, 2010

Scuttlebutt: What's Happening in Pyongyang?

A statue of North Korea's founder the so-called "Great Leader" President Kim Il Sung. Follow the latest events involving North Korea at the excellent NYT North Korea page.

"Not until Kim Jong-un is officially appointed to a senior party position, and his name appears in black and white in a North Korean newspaper, will we be able to say with any certainty that the succession has begun."---BBC (9-1-10)

North-Korea watchers report that a Delegates Conference of the Chosun Workers Party was supposed to begin in Pyongyang on or about September 6. (For the difference between a party conference and a party congress see here.) Supposedly, the Delegates Conference of the Party would begin the process of transferring power to "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il's 20-something son, "Brilliant Comrade" Kim Jong Un/Eun, during the celebration of Founder's Day (September 9), the 62nd anniversary of the founding of North Korea.

Pictures were supposedly being made of Kim's son so they could be distributed; and children were seen in the street singing "Footsteps," a song about how Kim Jong Un will follow in his father's footsteps. An adult photo of the young Kim and his name have never been published in the state-run N. Korean media. In propaganda campaigns, the young Kim is known simply as "Brilliant Comrade"; but according to defector reports and ground-level reporters, North Koreans--both ordinary people and elites--increasingly view their regime as a "failed anachronism" and are critical of Kim Jong Un.

Perhaps Kim Jong Il's most unpopular policy was his currency reform. Many Koreans scrounge out a living in the private sector. Since their government employers don't pay them, many North Koreans pay their employers to list them as dummy workers. The currency reform destroyed all their earnings.

The NYT (6-9-10) reports:

Like many North Koreans, the construction worker lived in penury. His state employer had not paid him for so long that he had forgotten his salary. Indeed, he paid his boss to be listed as a dummy worker so that he could leave his work site. Then he and his wife could scrape out a living selling small bags of detergent on the black market.

It hardly seemed that life could get worse. And then, one Saturday afternoon last November, his sister burst into his apartment in Chongjin with shocking news: the North Korean government had decided to drastically devalue the nation’s currency. The family’s life savings, about $1,560, had been reduced to about $30.

...[T]he Nov. 30 currency devaluation, apparently an attempt to prop up a foundering state-run economy, was for some the worst disaster since a famine that killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s. [See full text.]

AFP (9-1-10) reports on the purpose of the party conference:

Good Friends [a welfare group with cross-border contacts] quoted party officials as saying the meeting would focus on shaping new policies and electing new party delegates who may include the son.

Delegates may swear an oath of allegiance to Jong-Un, it said.

The group's director Lee Seung-Yong said the elder Kim may reshuffle the party hierarchy or set out new policies in a bid to ease widespread public anger at worsening economic problems including severe food shortages.

"Ordinary people in the country are not interested in the father-to-son transfer of power. They think their living standards will not improve even if the son inherits power," he told AFP.

Many senior party officials are also sceptical about Jong-Un, given his youth and inexperience, Lee said.

The Swiss-educated son is believed to be aged around 27 but little is known about him outside the reclusive country. No adult photograph of him has been seen overseas.

Good Friends said in its newsletter that Kim may formalise the power transfer on the party's 65th anniversary on October 10 by allowing his son to make a public speech.

"But it's difficult for senior party officials to nod their consent if the inexperienced son is upheld as the next leader only because of his family line," an unidentified party official was quoted as saying.

Dongguk University professor Kim Yong-Hyun predicted the meeting may take place next week, around the time when the North celebrates the anniversary of its founding on September 9, 1948.

He said Jong-Un could be named to a senior post but may join the party's top decision-making body only later, possibly in 2012.

Kim Jong-Il was named in 1980 as successor to Kim Il-Sung but did not formally assume his father's posts until 1997, three years after his father's death.

According to some reports, neither "Dear Leader" nor "Brilliant Comrade," who were both recently reported to be visiting China, have been reported in attendance at the workers' conference. It is not even clear that the conference is happening. Instead, Pyongyang has filled up with soldiers. Perhaps the conference has been delayed by flooding, or perhaps Kim Jong Il is not feeling well after his reported visit to China at the end of August.

Never-the-less, Kim Jong Il and his brother-in-law Jang Song Taek reportedly attended a meeting Tuesday night (9-7-10) commemorating Founders Day at the 25 April House of Culture.

North Korea Leadership Watch (9-8-10) reports:

There have been no indications as to whether the Party Conference has begun, but the gathering at the foundation central report meeting is a sign that all the necessary personalities are local. There was a report earlier this week that the Party Conference would be held at the 25 April House of Culture. Kim Jong Il and Jang Song Taek appreciated a performance by KPA Unit 963, which is linked to the Guard Command, but KCNA neither indicated the Party Conference nor the country’s foundation in its report. The last time KJI attended one of the Guard Command’s performances, Ri Je Gang did not make it home safely from the after party.

North Korea watchers say that the young heir apparent Kim Jong Un will have a regent, his uncle
Jang Song Taek, the husband of his father's younger sister. Outsiders speculate that Jang may seize power for himself.

The BBC (9-1-10) reports on the regime's key figures:

At the best of times North Korean politics can look a little bit like a game of retirement home musical chairs with a dangerous twist.

The ageing officials compete for positions, fall in and out of favour, and occasionally get shuffled off never to be seen again.

But recently there has been a flurry of changes, connected some observers believe, with the succession.

In particular, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, appears to be very much back in vogue after a few years in the wilderness, having now been given one of the vice-chairmen positions on the country's powerful National Defence Commission.

Many observers suggest he will play a trusted role as regent, guiding the young Kim Jong-un as he consolidates his power base, and may be given another powerful party position at the upcoming meeting.

Two other NDC vice chairmen, O Kuk-ryol and Kim Yong-chun, a key Workers Party official and defence minister respectively, are also tipped as men to watch.

Mr O, once said to be in charge of North Korea's highly sophisticated efforts to forge fake $100 bills, is now reported to be advising Kim Jong-un on operations against South Korea.

Ri Je-gang, a first deputy director of the Workers Party Organisation and Guidance Department, was another official said to be tasked with ensuring that the succession goes smoothly.

But, thought to be a long-time rival of Jang Song-thaek, Mr Ri died in a car accident late at night while driving home from a concert in June.

Many observers have raised the possibility of foul play and suggest that the case highlights the potential for power struggles and bloodletting during the uncertainties of the succession period.

The party conference will be a chance for Kim Jong-il to balance the interests of these various individuals and keep them in check.

There are even some reports that the handover of power is already fairly advanced with all communications with the leader now passing through the hands of Kim Jong-un.

But Brian Myers, a North Korea propaganda expert based at South Korea's Dongseo University, urges caution, given that much of the speculation about the goings on inside North Korea is based on sources outside the country, often North Korean defectors.

"The chances of your average North Korean defector knowing that are the same odds as an English teacher in a bar in Itaewon [in central Seoul] knowing what Obama said to his cabinet last week," he said.

Not until Kim Jong-un is officially appointed to a senior party position, and his name appears in black and white in a North Korean newspaper, will we be able to say with any certainty that the succession has begun.

The Financial Times (9-6-10) reports:

Reporters at North Korea’s state news agency usually specialise in tedious bulletins reciting the names of worker party officials who have paid visits to textile mills and fish farms.

From this week, however, these dreary dispatches will have unusually expectant readers as experts across the globe scour them for a name that has never before appeared in the official news media: Kim Jong-eun.

The youngest son of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s ailing dictator, is widely expected to receive his first official job at the first major congress of the ruling party for three decades, most likely to be convened this week.

A mention of Kim Jong-eun in any official capacity would effectively confirm him as his father’s successor. The key question, though, is whether he inherits his father’s autocratic mantle, or simply becomes the puppet ruler for a cabal of generals who must steer a poor nation wracked by food shortages and regular floods.

The evidence so far suggests that Jong-eun, who reportedly was educated in Switzerland, is already being styled for leadership. A tourist last year photographed a poster which named him as the “Young General”.

Reports from defectors also say children have learned songs that praise him. And South Korean spies believe he already has a backstage role and receives key intelligence dossiers.

North Korea has announced that the first party congress since 1980 will be held early this month. At the last congress, Kim Jong-il received the party titles that anointed him as heir apparent to his father, Kim Il-sung.

The exact timing of this month's congress is unclear but Good Friends, a South Korea-based activist group which claims sources in North Korea, said it expected the congress to be concluded by September 9, the anniversary of the nation’s foundation.

North Korean state media last month quoted Hu Jintao, China’s president, wishing that the party summit would be a “signal success”.

Kim Jong-il travelled late last month to China, his economic lifeline, and met Mr Hu. The language of his meetings suggested Mr Kim was laying the ground for a congress to refresh Pyongyang’s geriatric elite, which includes many senior commanders and officials in their 80s.

"It is our important historical mission to hand over to the rising generation the baton of the traditional friendship," Mr Kim said, adding that such a smooth handover was threatened by a “complicated” international situation.

Indeed, Jong-eun, who is probably only about 27 years old, may inherit a poisoned chalice as international financial sanctions, tightened since the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, bite hard.

“The upcoming congress aims to build a team for Kim Jong-eun. An elite of some 200 to 250 people will be composed of those loyal to him,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

Mr Cheong expects Kim Jong-eun to take both a powerful party role such as an organisational secretary and a military post, which would give him a stake in the two camps that are believed to compete for power within North Korea.

Still, the succession may not become immediately clear. There was similar – but ultimately incorrect - speculation that Kim Jong-eun’s name would emerge last year in elections for the people’s assembly.

Most analysts agree that Kim Jong-il has until 2012 to unveil his successor. In Pyongyang’s propaganda, this date is styled as a turning point when the country will become a “mighty and prosperous nation”.


Anonymous Scrooge said...

Trying to figure out what's happening in N Korea is never easy other than knowing that the people are suffering greatly. We have been waiting for over 20 years for the country to simply fall apart from within. Sometimes you think it would have been better to have gone in and destroy them in the early 90's. But then you see good news coming out of Cuba and think that N Korea may be able to change on their own. Wether it be like E Germany or Romania who knows.

1:54 PM  

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