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Political transition in North Korea in the Kim Jong-un era: elites' policy choices.

ON DECEMBER 19, 2011, NORTH KOREA ANNOUNCED THE DEATH OF Kim Jong-il through special broadcasting as follows: "Kim Jong Il, General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, Chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission and Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army, passed away from a great mental and physical strain at 08:30, December 17, 2011 on a train during a field guidance tour" (KCTV 2011). This was shocking news for the international community, which had been anticipating the advance of nuclear negotiations with the United States just a few days earlier, and the resumption of the long-stalled Six Party Talks.

North Korea now stands at a critical crossroads. If Kim Jong-un succeeds in the transfer of power, he can complete the third-generation hereditary succession. However, if he fails, the future of North Korea cannot be guaranteed. Therefore, Kim Jong-il's death has awakened a new way for us to study North Korea's future on the topic of regime transition.

The study of the transition of power in North Korea is not easy. As well as remaining a tightly closed society, North Korea still follows its own type of "Stalinist classical socialism" (Kornai 1992, 10). Since the collapse of Eastern European communism in 1989, it remains an interesting and unique, albeit difficult, task to predict with any certainty the country's future leadership scenarios. Kim Jong-il's succession was a testament to this. Despite North Korea's Arduous March period in the mid-1990s, in which 1 million people are said to have starved to death, Kim Jong-il put Songun or military-first politics at the forefront of domestic governance in the interest of social stability.

In less than five months following the death of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un had officially succeeded his father. Less than three years following the establishment of his regime, Kim Jong-un had strengthened his own control by purging two prominent figures, Ri Yong-ho (July 15, 2012) and Jang Song-thaek (December 12, 2013). However, it remained unclear if Kim Jong-un's bid to extend the Kim family's hereditary succession into a third generation would prevail in the face of numerous challenges associated with regime transition in socialist states.

Most socialist states have faced regime transition, including the Soviet Union and China, and these transitions have occurred both radically and gradually. How does North Korea's experience compare to these and other examples? Janos Kornai, an expert on leadership transitions in socialist countries, described the inevitable shift in North Korea as follows: "All the other socialist countries, including the two great powers, the Soviet Union and China, have gone beyond the classical [socialist] system" (Kornai 1992, 378). We can estimate the potential for the phenomena of transition in North Korea by looking at inducements for change away from the classical system as experienced in other socialist countries: (1) the accumulation of economic difficulties; (2) public dissatisfaction; (3) the loss of confidence in power; and (4) outside examples (interference and confrontation by a neighboring country) (Kornai 1992, 383-386).

In asking why socialism failed, Ivan Szelenyi and Balazs Szelenyi (1994, 214, 221) raise an important question relevant to the issue of transition, which is whether it ever worked as a political system. We can also ask the same question with regard to North Korea: Did socialism ever work in North Korea? Addressing the question of whether North Korea is a successful model of socialism, in the Stalinist model, is the purpose of this article.

Theoretical Approach

The Elite Policy Choice

According to Kornai's definition, the transition of a system denotes two dimensions: first, political transfer from the socialist regime to that of a democratic regime; second, economic transfer from a planned economy to a market economy (Kornai 1992). There are two ways to accomplish these kinds of transitions: first, a gradual approach characterized by experimental and partial reform from above, from a planned economy toward a market economy--the key feature of China's and Vietnam's economic transitions (Guo 2004; Szelenyi 2008); second, a radical approach characterized by a big bang and sweeping revolution from below in both areas--the key feature in Russia's and Eastern Europe's transitions (Kornai 1992; Mason 1992).

To explain North Korea's transition, one must find the reason for the divergent patterns (gradual or radical) in the transitions of socialist countries. Throughout the 1990s, two big debates characterized the scholarship, and two causes were suggested for the different patterns: one was the initial conditions, and the other was elite policy choices. In 2004, Sujian Guo argued that, "while initial conditions are important in determining and explaining why reforms are adopted, elite strategic policy choices best explain how reforms have been carried out, because it is elite strategic interactions and policy choices that have played a direct role in shaping the pattern of transition" (Guo 2004, 394). In this context, "initial conditions" means prereform conditions or antecedent causes, such as predominantly agrarian societies, deepening economic recession or trade and financial difficulties, and political upheaval (Guo 2004, 394). Guo also emphasized that the initial conditions of transition may differ significantly in different countries. However, these initial conditions could just prompt elite policy choices, so rendering elite policy choices more important for determining the pattern of transition. This relationship between the initial conditions and elite policy choices was effective under the condition that Guo premised, which can be explained as follows.

Suppose the communist elite shares a common belief in the efficacy of policy choice--for example, the leadership's perception of the necessity for economic growth on the one hand, and the need for maintenance of communist power and interest on the other (Guo 2004, 394-395). In this case, the specific initial conditions (Zi) in different countries prompt the elites to act on a common set of policy choices (Xi) to produce a gradual pattern of transition (Yi), and among these, the relationship should look like a set of antecedent relationships between Zi, Xi, and Yi (Guo 2004, 395) (see Figure 1 below).

New Theoretical Frame for North Korea

Although this theory is useful in explaining the gradual transition that occurred in both China and Vietnam, it is unable to explain the radical transitions of Russia and Eastern Europe because it is based on the premise that the communist elite would choose to balance the necessity of economic growth with the maintenance of leadership power.

In other words, Guo supposes that the elites would exhibit rational behavior. However, the two main factors in this premise, economic growth and maintenance of power, are directly contradictory. China and Vietnam adopted gradualist approaches, but Russia and Eastern Europe adopted radicalist ones.

To explain the cause of the Soviet Union's collapse, Mervyn Matthews (1989) suggests deepening economic recession as an initial condition. Gorbachev had strongly promoted fundamental reforms to overcome Russia's deepening economic recession, but these reforms inevitably brought on the resistance and eventual fragmentation of the existing elite groups (Matthews 1989). In contrast to Guo's assertion, the Soviet elite might not have shared the same views on the efficacy of policies that would seek to balance the pursuit of economic growth with leadership concerns about power.

In North Korea's case, how can we be sure that the North Korean elites will act responsibly to effect a gradual transition? We can explain this expectation through the changed role of two kinds of elite groups in the North Korean political system, known as the Suryong (supreme leader) system. The Suryong system is largely composed of two axes. The vertical axis is the leadership system, in which the system places Suryong-the party-the state in order. This represents a system of suppression for the administration of the state. The horizontal axis represents an integrated system in which Suryong-the party-the people are unified, implying the voluntary support of Suryong by the people (Kim 1998, 447).

To maintain the Suryong system, party elites are important because of two roles played by the party in North Korea: first, it is the sole gateway through which to carry out the commands of the Suryong in the leadership system; second, it is the pivot that combines Suryong and the people into one existence in societal activities (Kim 1989, 50).

However, under Songun, Kim Jong-il replaced the role and position of the party elites with those of the military elites after his inauguration in 1998. This replacement proceeded in three dimensions: first, the change of dominant ideologies from Juche (self-reliance) to Songun (1998); second, the change of Kim Jong-il's main title from general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) to chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) as the top national institution (2009); third, the appointment of vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and four-star general as the official position for Kim Jong-un's succession (2010).

According to the theory of succession in North Korea, the successor's unitary leadership (1) is completed while the predecessor is alive. Therefore, it is finished not when the successor is selected but when the chosen one completes the building of his own leadership system (Kim 1989). However, Kim Jong-un was not able to complete his unitary leadership as his father did because Kim Jong-un had had less than three years to carry out his succession, whereas Kim Jong-il had had over twenty years. As a result, at the Third Conference of Representatives of the Workers' Party of Korea (hereafter, Third Party Conference) held on September 28, 2010, Kim Jong-il made the elite (party and military) compete with each other for loyalty to Kim Jong-un, hoping that this would buy his young and inexperienced successor some time to set up his own leadership system (Lee 2014).

In the process of fundamentally shifting the position and role of the party, will the North Korean party and military elite behave rationally? During the third hereditary succession, Kim Jong-il's ailing health stimulated a rapid change of power actors. This change was inevitably accompanied by a mutual conflict within the elite groups to grasp the initiative in the period of the power shift.

Therefore, a revised model focused on the elite's policy competition is required to explain the patterns of transition. In particular, the conflicts over power between the party elites and military elites will determine which group will take the initiative during the Kim Jong-un era. In what follows, I examine how these changes under the Suryong system can influence the conflicts between the two elite groups, and explain whether this power conflict will affect the patterns of North Korea's transition. To do so, I modify Sujian Guo's (2004) premise so that we can take into account the specific initial conditions (Zi) that prompt the elites to act on different policy choices (X1, X2) and produce different patterns of transition (Y1, Y2) (see Figure 2).

The First Elite Policy Choice: Reformers and Conservatives (1998-2009)

After the inauguration of Kim Jong-il's regime in 1998 and under circumstances of hardship, the most urgent problem facing Kim was regime survival. He also perceived the need to maintain power on the one hand and to grow the economy on the other. Thus, he gradually started to change the single elite structure that had been dominated by the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the WPK. He introduced competitive principles into his elite groups in order to induce a competition of loyalties.

First, Kim Jong-il proclaimed Songun policy for the security of his own regime. Through a coeditorial in the Rodong Sinmun (the official mouthpiece of the Central Committee of the WPK), he said, "All problems in the course of the revolution should be solved by military first policy.... This is my way of leadership" (Rodong Sinmun 1999b). Under the policy he prioritized the military in elite recruitment. As a result, military elites increased remarkably both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Second, through another coeditorial published in Rodong Sinmun, Kim Jong-il simultaneously proclaimed Kangseongtaeguk ("great, prosperous, and powerful country") as a new vision for overcoming economic difficulties (Rodong Sinmun 1999a). Under Kangseongtaeguk, he suggested a shili (practicalism) principle for elite recruitment. And so, in a conversation with the workers of the party in January 2001, Kim Jong-il emphasized that "loyalty is not a word but an ability" (Kim 2005, 94).

According to Kim's perception, North Korean authorities enforced the July 1st Measures in 2002 to pursue the coexistence of a planned economy and market economy. Competition among elites also escalated in the period stretching from mid-1998 to early 2005. As a result, the reformers (military and cabinet elites) overwhelmed the conservatives (party elites) because of the unilateral support of Kim Jong-il.

As a first move Kim would place military elites in core positions of the party, such as the Party Central Committee, OGD, and the Secretary of the WPK. For example, Ri Yong-chul, the director of operations of general staff of the Korean People's Army (KPA), was appointed first deputy of the OGD; Hwang Byongseo, from the General Political Bureau of the KPA, was appointed deputy of the OGD; Kang Dong-yun, from the General Staff of the Mechanization Corps of the army, was appointed deputy of the OGD; and Ju Sang-sung, from the Fifth Army Corp of General Staff, was appointed minister of people's security (Hyun 2007). As a result, many of the party elites were drawn back, and those vacancies were filled with military elites.

As a second move, a policy of meritocracy became more firmly established after the announcement of the July 1st Measures in 2002. Kim Jong-il appointed Pak Bong-ju as prime minister in 2003. Pak had played a leading role in the July 1st Measures, overseeing the recruitment of the young technocrats in the cabinet and the institutionalization of a comprehensive market system since 2003. These measures were a shocking transition to the North Koreans because crucial market economy reforms, such as decentralization, marketization, and monetization, affected all areas of society.

Marketization is perhaps the most transformative reform policy of the July 1st Measures that were introduced at that time. The introduction of monetary economics into the planned economy was accompanied by revolutionary changes in the concepts and lifestyle of the people (Kim 2008). The reformers tried to plant the market system within the official institution of the planned economy, because markets were already widespread throughout the country--up to nearly 300 locations in 2003 (Park 2010)--and more than 50 percent of the entire population was participating in market activity.

Benefits for the Kim regime were also pursued through marketization. However, the reform measures put the conservatives in the party at a disadvantage in terms of benefits. The reaction from the conservatives was inevitably hostile. They heavily criticized marketization as the main threat to the Suryong system, pointing out that marketization worsened the foundation of the planned economy and expanded the gap between the rich and poor due to the concentration of wealth. Moreover, as a new wealthy class emerged, many North Koreans began to accept as natural the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. In addition to this, the market dependence of the state escalated continuously (Yang 2010, 299).

When an incident of illegal trade of a so-called slogan tree (2) took place in Yonsa-gun of North Hamgyong province in July 2007, Kim Jong-il finally recognized that the expansion of markets was causing antisocialist phenomena--such as materialism, individualism, and anticollectivism--and that these phenomena were rapidly penetrating North Korean society. In late 2005, party conservatives focused on controlling market expansion. This suppression of market activities relates to the comeback of Jang Song-thaek, who had been purged on charges of factional activities in 2004.

After Jang Song-thaek took up his old position, party conservatives established the Department of Planning and Finance of the WPK, and appointed Pak Nam-gi as director. Pak Nam-gi enforced the reconstruction of the planned economy and deprived Prime Minister Pak Bong-ju of the right to appoint economic elites (Park 2010). The foiling of the July 1st Measures was deeply connected with the political competition between the reformers and conservatives. Consequently, Pak Bong-ju was suspended from duty in 2006 and purged by the conservatives in 2007.

This competition continued with the regime's flash currency reform on November 30, 2009, to suppress the connection of export enterprises under the control of military elites with market actors who had been boosted by the July 1st Measures in 2002.

However, the currency reform failed and threw the North Korean economy into confusion and heightened the complaints of the North Korean people. To appease the people, Pak Nam-gi was made a scapegoat. Charged with the failure of the currency reform, he was subsequently executed by firing squad in March 2010. However, the conservatives of the WPK, under the pretext of safeguarding the Suryong system, actually had defeated the cabinet's reform measures. Therefore, the structure of the elites in North Korea was reduced to competition for survival between the party and military elites.

The Second Elite Policy Choice: Party Elite and Military Elite (2009-2014)

Emergence of the New Elite Structure

At the Third Party Conference on September 28, 2010, Kim Jong-il officially appointed Kim Jong-un as his successor. He also designed a new elite structure in which the single elite system was turned into a pluralistic system to support the young and inexperienced successor through loyalty competition between the party and military elites. The biggest worry to the ailing Kim Jong-il, whose health declined precipitously after he suffered a stroke in 2008, was whether Kim Jong-un could lead without his father's protection. While Kim Jong-il had had twenty years to prepare his succession, Kim Jong-un ended up having fewer than three years due to his father's sudden death in December 2011 (Lee 2014).

Kim Jong-il's plan was to fill the power vacuum with the tutelage of an elite group (Lee 2014). Kim Jong-il called on two figures, Jang Song-thaek and Ri Yong-ho, who could rise as potential rivals to the establishment of Kim Jong-un's leadership. In this regard, the following stands out.

As the first major event before nominating his successor, Kim Jong-il appointed Jang Song-thaek as vice chairman of the NDC in June 2010. Five days prior to Jang's appointment, Kim purged Jang's biggest political rival, Ri Je-gang, then first deputy of the OGD, via a mysterious car accident. (3) Jang Song-thaek had the broadest power base among the elites, as vice chairman of the NDC, alternate member of the Political Bureau, member of the Central Military Commission, and director of the Administrative Department of the WPK. Among these institutions, Jang's main power base was the Administrative Department of the WPK, which dominated internal security officers in the Court, Prosecution, National Security, and People's Security. Kim Jong-il also appointed Jang's aids (4) as alternate members of the Political Bureau and members of the Central Military Commission at the Third Party Conference in September 2010.

As a result, Jang did not want a rapid power shift that would drain power from Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-il also did his best to plug the drainage of power during the succession process. Kim inevitably needed Jang to play a role in controlling both the speed and the direction of the succession process.

The second major event happened at the Third Party Conference in September 2010 when in the commemorative photo Kim Jong-il seated Ri Yong-ho between himself and Kim Jong-un. This is the same placement Kim Il-sung maintained with O Jin-u (who died in 1995 as marshal, minister of armed forces), seated between him and Kim Jong-il at the Sixth Party Congress in 1980. This indicates the importance of the role of Ri Yong-ho during the succession period, especially to unify the power of military forces under the leadership of the Kim family. Ri's status came from his parents; his father served under Kim Il-sung, and his mother is said to have helped raise Kim Jong-il after his own mother died (Beck 2011, 37).

Ri Yong-ho had been promoted rapidly. He was appointed commander of the Protection for Pyongyang in 2007, appointed chief of the General Staff of the KPA in 2009, and promoted to vice marshal (one rank higher than four-star general) in 2010. Kim Jong-il also appointed Ri Yong-ho as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission together with Kim Jong-un and made him a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau. He was the only person in a senior leadership position under the age of eighty who was not from the Kim family (Beck 2011).

Ri Yong-ho was the new leader of the KPA forces because he possessed the strongest power base among the military elites when the hard-line power elites of the military convened at the Central Military Commission. (5) These military elites represent a generational shift; in other words, a postwar generation (without the experience of the Korean War in 1950) has replaced the first revolutionary generation in North Korea's military leadership.

Both should have had similar roles in the establishment of the leadership of Kim Jong-un; however, their roles in establishing Kim Jong-un's succession were very different. First, Kim Jong-il might have entrusted Jang Song-thaek with the job of ensuring the stability of succession as a patron of the so-called Baekdu bloodline. Therefore, Kim Jong-il inevitably needed the Administrative Department of the WPK to act as surveillance around the successor. Second, Kim Jong-il designated Ri Yong-ho, who was strongly trusted by military elites, as a guardian to support the young successor. So Kim Jong-il wanted to fortify Kim Jong-un's foundation of power for military command as a check against the power of the party.

As a result, in the period of Kim Jong-un's succession, a new competitive elite structure emerged, composed of two groups: the party elites centered on the Administrative Department, led by Jang Song-thaek, who were keeping an eye on the regime and society; and the new military elites employed in the national forces, led by Ri Yong-ho, to safeguard the regime. Above all, the intensified competition can be attributed to the different roles and benefits between the two groups during the period of the third leadership succession.

The Loyalty Competition of the Two Elite Groups

The loyalty competition between the two groups is the main cause regularly repeated in both hard-line and soft-line North Korean foreign policy from January 2009 (the date of Kim Jong-un's nomination as successor) to December 19, 2011 (the date of Kim Jong-il's death). Looking at North Korea's foreign affairs, the country's first move after the nomination of the new successor was provocation. In January 2009, the inauguration of US president Barack Obama raised expectations for a return to talks in some form between North Korea and the United States. However, North Korea unexpectedly launched a long-range missile in April and carried out a second nuclear test in May 2009.

The second move was dialogue. North Korea invited former US president Bill Clinton to discuss the release of two detained American journalists in August, and dispatched a special envoy, Kim Ginam, secretariat of the WPK, to attend the funeral of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung and to propose summit talks to then South Korean president Lee Myung-bak in August 2009.

The third was, again, provocation when a North Korean patrol boat crossed the Northern Limit Line and engaged in armed conflict with South Korea during Obama's Asia tour in November 2009. Later, in March 2010, the South Korean warship Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo attack.

The fourth was dialogue. After the UN Security Council issued a Presidential Statement condemning the attack, Kim Jongil visited China twice (in May and August) to escape diplomatic isolation and express willingness to resume the Six Party Talks and implement the September 19th Joint Statement. North Korea also further agreed to the reunion of separated (Korean) families in September 2010.

The fifth was provocation yet again. North Korea shelled South Korea's front island of Yeonpyeong, an act that claimed the lives of two civilians and two soldiers in November 2010. This act shocked many as it was the first attack on South Korean territory since the Korean War (1950-1953).

In the sixth foreign policy event, North Korea, however, turned back to dialogue and emphasized "the necessity to eliminate the hostile confrontation in inter-Korea relations" (Rodong Sinmun 2011). Kim Jong-il again visited China and also Russia between May and August 2011, and called for the resumption of Six Party Talks without preconditions. Then suddenly on December 17, 2011, Kim Jong-il died.

Within one year, from May 2010 to May 2011, Kim Jong-il visited China three times. Observers wondered what had caused such unexpected moves. The foremost objectives of Kim Jong-il's visits were economic cooperation with China and attempts to escape diplomatic isolation by gaining China's diplomatic and political support. Whenever he visited China, Kim proclaimed that he was willing to return to the stalled six-party nuclear talks "without preconditions" (Blanchard 2011). In May 2011, in the trilateral summit meeting between South Korea, Japan, and China, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao told South Korean president Lee Myung-bak that China invited North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to the country to "help Pyongyang learn about Chinese economic development" (Lee 2011).

Despite Kim Jong-il's economic and diplomatic efforts, the North Korean military committed two fatal provocations: the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. These are the biggest reasons why the Six Party Talks have not resumed. South Korea has demanded North Korea's sincere apology as a precondition to resuming the talks, and the United States, keeping pace with South Korea, asked for more concrete action regarding North Korea's stance on denuclearization.

Why did the policies repeatedly go back and forth between provocation and dialogue after the nomination of the new successor? The reason comes from the fact that there were two elite groups whose interests were in conflict (Lee 2012). The party elites aimed to negotiate while the new military elites preferred to raise tensions via provocation. The interests of the two groups diverged distinctively upon the emergence of the new successor in the following ways.

First, the party elite, centered on the Administrative Department and led by Jang Song-thaek, pursued a gradual power shift during the succession period to prevent the rapid drain of Kim Jong-il's power. They advocated for Kangseongtaeguk (strong and prosperous nation) policies that would help attract foreign investment to North Korea's special economic zones (SEZs; e.g., Rason Special Economic Trade Zone, Hwanggumphyong Island and Wihwado Economic Zone, and the Kaesong Industrial Complex). They thus needed to moderate relations with interested neighboring countries so as to overcome diplomatic isolation. This group wanted to return to the traditional party-military system to control the military elite's provocative activities. Kim Jong-il's successive visits to China and Russia between May 2010 and August 2011 might have originated from the role of the party elites.

Second, the new military elite group led by Ri Yong-ho, by contrast, pushed for a more rapid power shift because Kim Jongun's succession would proceed with a military-based leadership in place--unlike Kim Jong-il's succession, which proceeded under a party-based leadership. Therefore, Ri Yong-ho advocated the Songun policy to ultimately take the initiative during the Kimfamily third-generation succession. This group preferred nuclear tests and missile launches to exacerbate external tension so as to facilitate internal cohesion. They also preferred that the military elite keep the economic privileges they were receiving through the military's control of export companies involved in sales of natural resources to China. They did not favor a return to the traditional party-military system during the period of leadership succession. Consequently, the fatal provocations (i.e., sinking of the ROK's Cheonan and bombardment of Yeonpyeong) might have originated from the role of the new military elites.

Of course, this competition of the two elite groups had been under the watchful eye of Kim Jong-il, because he designed the loyalty competition between the elite groups in order to allow his young son to more easily grasp power. However, after Kim Jongil's death, this loyalty competition threatened the stability of Kim Jong-un's succession, as it resulted in the collapse of the checks and balances on power that Kim Jong-il had designed between the two groups.

Power Struggles of the Two Elite Groups

The Political Bureau of the WPK bestowed the first official title on Kim Jong-un as supreme commander of the country's armed forces on December 30, 2011 (Chosun Sinbo 2011). Following this, on January 1, 2012, Kim Jong-un visited the Ryu Kyong Su 105th Amoured Tank Division--the first North Korean forces to occupy Seoul during the Korean War in 1950--as his first field guidance tour (KCTV 2012a). As part of his first recruitment policy, Kim Jong-un also carried out promotions for the top twenty-three military figures on February 15, 2012 (KCTV 2012b). These measures indicate that Kim Jong-un may have preferred external tension rather than negotiations with neighboring countries. However, the invalidation of the February 29 Agreement with the United States, which would have brought in nutrition supplies to North Korea in exchange for dismantlement of DPRK nuclear facilities and missile launches, stimulated the strong need for Kim to constrain the military elites' provocative activities (Lee 2012).

His first move was to increase the power of the party elites. On April 15, 2012, the centenary of Kim Il-sung's birth, Kim Jongun appointed Choe Ryong-hae, who came from the Central Party Committee, as the director of the General Politics Bureau of the KPA and the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and presidium of the Political Bureau of the WPK. Therefore, Choe was higher than Ri Yong-ho, who was posted as the second figure in the power elites at the Third Party Conference on September 28, 2010. Other party elite members based in the party were also appointed to higher ranks, such as Jang Song-thaek, who was promoted as member of the Political Bureau, his wife Kim Kyonghui as secretariat of the WPK, and Kim Won-hong as director of the National Security Department.

The second move was to purge or derank top military elites. On July 15, 2012, Ri Yong-ho was suddenly purged from his top military post as well as all other official positions in the Committee of the Political Bureau (KCNA 2012b). His purge resulted in a power struggle over economic interests. Although Kim Jong-un proclaimed the April 6 Discourse, which emphasized the transfer of control of national economic resources from the military to the cabinet, Ri Yong-ho resisted the transfer of control of export companies to the cabinet under the influence of the Administrative Department led by Jang Song-thaek. (6)

Ri's attitude motivated the formation of an alliance of an antiRi Yong-ho group led by the party elites, namely, Jang Songthaek, Kim Kyong-hui, Choe Ryong-hae, and Kim Won-hong. Not only Ri Yong-ho but also other military elites were downgraded: Kim Jong-gak was removed from his position as minister of the armed forces; Hyun Young-chul, chief of General Staff, was demoted from marshal to four-star general; Kim Young-chul, director of the Special Operations Forces, was also demoted to two stars. As a result, the purge of Ri Yong-ho thus meant the collapse of the new elite structure designed by Kim Jong-il as a check on the elite to support Kim Jong-un's power succession.

During the discourse, military elites again pushed toward provocative actions to regain policy initiative by following up with a ballistic missile launch on December 12, 2012, to recover from the previous failure, and furthermore carried out a third nuclear test on February 12, 2013. After the subsequent harsh sanctions laid down by the UN Security Council (i.e., UNSC Resolutions 2087 and 2094), on March 5, 2013, the DPRK National Defense Commission declared the nullification of the Korean War Armistice Treaty and repeal of the inter-Korean nonaggression accords. North Korea banned South Korean workers from entering the Kaesong Industrial Complex--a joint inter-Korean project--on April 3, and then announced the withdrawal of all North Korean workers from the complex and suspended its operations on April 8, 2013.

However, these provocative actions deepened North Korea's diplomatic isolation, especially after the bilateral summit talks among its neighbors--that is, the ROK-US summit in May, ROKChina in June, and US-China summit in July. Thus Kim Jong-un moved again to weaken the warlike military elites in the political sphere. Military officials were replaced with younger, less-influential personnel. The hard-line minister of armed forces, Kim Gyeok-sik, was replaced in May 2013 by Jang Jong-nam, who is in his fifties and was a three-star general. The KPA chief of General Staff, Hyun Young-chul, was replaced by Kim Gyeok-sik in May 2013, and Kim Gyeok-sik was soon replaced by Ri Yong-gil, director of operations of the KPA, in August 2013. (7)

In contrast to the disadvantages of military elites, the administrative party elites led by Jang Song-thaek dominated not only the political sphere but also economic interests. Jang's group was especially interested in obtaining the rights of the foreign currency-earning export companies run by the military elite. Export companies were said to account for earning up to 70 percent of the country's foreign currency reserves. Under the Songun politics, Kim Jong-il permitted the military elites to own these enterprises--a compensation for the insufficient budget--with the elites' paying loyalty fees from their earnings. However, after Kim Jong-un came to power, the April 6 Dialogue, which emphasized the role of the cabinet in managing the national economy, triggered a dispute in 2012 between the two groups over economic interests (KCNA 2012a).

Jang Song-thaek's moves accelerated the transfer of economic interests. His first move was to visit China for five days in mid-August 2012 with a large delegation. The purpose of this visit was to request China's cooperation in pushing ahead with the development of North Korea's special economic zones such as Hwanggumphyong and Wihado, which had been under threat of suspension. His second move was to transfer the Seungri General Export Company (Office no. 54), controlled by the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army, to the NDC, which was under the influence of Jang Song-thaek (vice chairman of the NDC) in late 2011. Furthermore Jang Song-thaek monopolized national economic interests under the Administrative Department of the WPK and played a leading role in transferring control of export enterprises to the cabinet under the terms of the April 6 Dialogue.

The excessive concentration of economic power in the hands of Jang Song-thaek inevitably brought about resistance from the rest of the elite groups, which had been excluded from the political and economic interests, such as those elites from the General Political Bureau of the KPA and the Organization and Guidance Department of the WPK.

In September 2013, after Kim Kyoung-hui traveled to Russia for medical treatment, dramatic changes occurred. The disenfranchised elite groups formed an anti-Jang Song-thaek alliance. On November 30, 2013, two weeks before Jang's execution, the excluded elite (8) convened a secret meeting in Samjiyeon at Mt. Baekdu with Kim Jong-un, who had pretended to be making a field guidance tour but was actually plotting to purge Jang and his aides (Yoon 2013).

On December 12, 2013, North Korea's official Korean Central Television (KCTV) harshly characterized Jang Song-thaek when reporting his execution on charges of treason that had been determined in a special military tribunal (KCTV 2013). The Rodong Sinmun released a photo of security officers at a Workers' Party meeting dragging out Jang, guilty of "anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional" crimes on December 8, 2013 (Rodong Sinmun 2013a).

After Jang's purge, Choe Ryong-hae stood out as the de facto number two man in the North Korean hierarchy at the second memorial service of the late Kim Jong-il on December 17, 2013 (Rodong Sinmun 2013b). In early 2014, Choe was dismissed suddenly as director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA and was simply referred to as a secretary of the WPK. Then, among a number of officials on a field guidance tour, Hwang Byong-seo, first deputy of the OGD, stood out. He was eventually appointed director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA at an event held on May 1. However, the purges of military elites continued in 2015 even after the end of the three-year period in which the dying instructions of Kim Jong-il were carried out. For example, Hyun Young-chul, minister of armed forces, was said to have been executed mercilessly for displaying a bad attitude toward the highest majesty, Kim Jong-un, on April 30, 2015.

North Korea tried to establish its ruling leadership system by concentrating on having members of the OGD play a leading role in strengthening Kim Jong-un's regime. This was done through the seventieth anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party on October 10, 2015. In addition, the opening of the Seventh Congress of the WPK in early May 2016 symbolized the emergence of a new party-first policy in the Kim Jong-un era to replace the military-first policy of the Kim Jong-il era. Therefore, North Korea has already embarked upon the path of transition. Whether the pattern will be gradual or radical will be determined by the elites' policy choices.


As seen from the above explanation, in evaluating North Korea's political transition, certain key words emerge: party elite (OGD) and economic interests. Despite not having consolidated his unitary leadership, Kim Jong-un was able to take the initiative easily because it was in the interests of the competing elite groups. However, as soon as one of the two elite groups dominates effective control over the political and economic situation in the country, it may threaten the maintenance of the Suryong system. This is the lesson of history.

Using Sujian Guo's definition, I suggest two scenarios of transition in North Korea. The gradual transition scenario (Figure 3) comes about when the party elite (of the OGD) consolidates its political dominance to ensure that the essential economic interests of the military elite support Kim Jong-un's economic construction plan. The party elite's policy choices will be moderate toward neighboring countries on the issues of multilateral talks so as to attract investment for economic policy measures, such as those for development of SEZs and joint venture companies to cooperate with China, the United States, and South Korea. As a result, the party elite's policy choice will be a gradual approach through strengthening the leadership of Kim Jong-un, and maintaining the essential economic interests of the military elite in order to avoid conflict over economic hegemony.

The radical transition scenario (Figure 4) would come about if the party elite (of the OGD) push to monopolize the vital economic interests of the military elite. If the party elite sustain Kim Jongun's economic reforms, they will need to expand the autonomy of economic units, activate the market, and attract investment for the SEZs. For this, foreign currency is most important for distributing profits to the national economic units. Under this scenario the party elite will try to deprive the military elite of the export companies they run and increase the reign of terror against them on the pretext of strengthening Kim Jong-un's leadership, which is what Jang Song-thaek did. As a result, to overcome their disadvantaged circumstances, as a policy choice the military elite will favor a radical approach advocating provocative actions like the launching of long-range missiles and the carrying out of nuclear tests. The heightening tension could lead to an armed clash as the two elite groups try to gain the initiative in the internal power politics.

Political transition in North Korea could disrupt the status quo in Northeast Asia. When we consider the situation of Northeast Asia and the increasing likelihood of confrontation between the United States and China, there emerges a need to forestall such political transition, which would have strategic implications for both big powers. For this reason we also need a system of collective global security to cope with possible radical change in North Korea. At this time it is more important than ever for the international community to keep calm and carry on.


Seung-Yeol Lee is senior researcher at the National Assembly Research Service in South Korea. He specializes in North Korea politics. He is author of the book Kim Jong Ils Choice (2009; in Korean). His recent articles deal with North Korean politics and the succession issue, and appear in North Korean Studies Review and Asia Paper. He can be reached at The author would like to sincerely thank Juliet Lee for her hard work in editing the initial manuscript.

(1.) Unitary leadership comprises the whole system of organization, ideas, and mobilization functioning to build a robust organizational and political platform and to fully realize the successor's leadership as the head of the party (Kim 1984).

(2.) Slogan trees are revolutionary historical remains made by North Korean authorities to idolize Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-il's mother Kim Jong-sook. In the DPRK, cutting down such a tree is a serious crime against the leader.

(3.) Ri Je-gang served thirty-seven years in the Department of Organization and Guidance, led the expulsion of Jang Song-thaek in 2004, and first delivered the nomination of Kim Jong-un to the party and military in early 2009.

(4.) Kim Yang-gun (director of United Front Department), Kim Yong-il (international affairs secretariat of the WPK), Choe Ryong-hae (alternate member of Political Bureau, secretariat of the WPK), Kim Chang-sop (political director of National Security Department), Mun Kyong-dok (secretary of Pyongyang), and Kim Won-hong (deputy director General Political Bureau).

(5.) Jong Myong-do (navy commander), Ri Byong-chol (airforce commander), Choe Pu-il (deputy chief of General Staff), Kim Yong-chul (director of Special Operation Force), Yun Jong-rin (guard commander), Choe Sang-ryo (artillery commander), and Choe Kyong-song (Pyongyang defense commander).

(6.) Author interview with a high-ranking defector, August 20, 2012.

(7.) Kim Jong-un reshuffled the four top military officials from 2012 to 2014 as follows: (1) the People's Army General Politics Bureau (Cheo Ryong-hae [right arrow] Hwang Byong-se); (2) chief of general staff (Ri Yong-ho [right arrow] Hyun Young-chul [right arrow] Kim Gyeok-sik [right arrow] Ri Yong-gil); (3) minister of armed forces (Kim Young-chun [right arrow] Kim Jong-gak [right arrow] Kim Gyeok-sik [right arrow] Jang Jongnam [right arrow] Hyun Young-chul); and (4) director of operations of the General Staff (Kim Myong-kuk [right arrow] Choe Bu-il [right arrow] Ri Yong-gil [right arrow] Byun In-sun).

(8.) Choe Ryong Hae (director of the General Politcal Bureau of the KPA), Kim Won Hong (director of the National Security Department), Cho Yon Jun (first deputy of the Department of the Organization and Guidance of the KWP), Hwang Byong Seo (deputy of the Department of the Organization and Guidance of KWP), and so on.


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Caption: Figure 1 The Relationship Between Independent and Dependent Variables

Caption: Figure 2 New Theoretical Frame of North Korea

Caption: Figure 3 Gradual Transition of North Korea

Caption: Figure 4 Radical Transition of North Korea
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Date:Jul 1, 2017
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