Bad Institutions

February 4, 2013 7:00 AM

We look closely at institutional developments in North Korea for signs of hope: that Kim Jong Un would shift his attention to bodies that would constrain his impulses for the grand gesture or represent a somewhat wider array of economic and social interests. Lost amidst the focus on the likely nuclear test is the ample evidence that precisely the opposite is occurring. Kim Jong Un is picking institutional venues that showcase—and cheerlead—his militaristic impulses. If he is constrained, it is by precisely the forces that are going to keep the country moving on its current track.

First, we had the bellicose statement issued in the name of the NDC. The NDC-still at the apex of the power structure--is dominated by the military and security sectors (we track its composition over time here). Then came the KCNA report of the convening of a “consultative meeting” of officials in the fields of state security and foreign affairs:  Choe Ryong Hae, director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA; Hyon Yong Chol, chief of the General Staff of the KPA; Kim Won Hong, minister of State Security; Pak To Chun and Kim Yong Il, secretaries of the Central Committee of the WPK; Hong Sung Mu, vice department director of the Central Committee of the WPK; and Kim Kye Gwan, first vice-minister of Foreign Affairs. As we know, the order in which personnel are listed is hardly coincidental. Choe Ryong Hae is what we have called a “civilian military” figure; his military appointment came late in a career that contained administrative posts in the party (a bio is here). Nonetheless, this war council not only issued the most threatening statements since the UNSC resolution, but noted that the conditions for undertaking changes in economic policy were no longer favorable.

Now we have an “enlarged” meeting of the Central Military Commission, including regular members of the CMC plus “staff members of the KPA Supreme Command and commanding officers of the large combined units including the navy, air force and anti-air force and strategic rocket force.” The good news—if any—was that the specific threats contained in the earlier statements were not reiterated in the KCNA’s coverage of the meeting, reproduced in full below. But the coverage emphasizes that the thrust of the meeting was pure songun; “a great turn in bolstering up the military capability” and the use of the big-push, military metaphor for transforming the economy. Moreover, Michael Madden’s dissection of the event for North Korea Leadership Watch speculates that it could also represent a kind of authorization or collective signaling that the military is behind the test if and when it comes. Not auspicious in either the long- or short-run.

Enlarged Meeting of Central Military Commission of WPK Held under Guidance of Kim Jong Un

Pyongyang, February 3 (KCNA) -- An enlarged meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea was held under the guidance of Kim Jong Un, first secretary of the WPK, chairman of the Central Military Commission of the WPK, first chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission and supreme commander of the Korean People's Army.

Present there were members of the WPK Central Military Commission, staff members of the KPA Supreme Command and commanding officers of the large combined units including the navy, air force and anti-air force and strategic rocket force.

The enlarged meeting of the WPK Central Military Commission discussed the issue of bringing about a great turn in bolstering up the military capability, true to the Songun revolutionary leadership of the WPK, and an organizational issue.

Kim Jong Un made an important concluding speech which serves as guidelines for further strengthening the KPA into a matchless revolutionary army of Mt. Paektu and defending the security and sovereignty of the country as required by the WPK and the developing revolution.

After listening to the historic speech made by Kim Jong Un with great excitement, the participants in the meeting extended highest glory and deepest thanks to Kim Jong Un, who is ushering in the greatest heyday of increasing the military capability with his extraordinary wisdom and stratagem, matchless grit and pluck and noble virtues and evinced their firm determination to unconditionally and thoroughly implement the militant tasks set forth by him in his speech.

The enlarged meeting of the WPK Central Military Commission held at an important time when a turning phase is being opened in building a thriving socialist nation and achieving the cause of national reunification will mark an important occasion in powerfully encouraging the army and people of the DPRK all out in the general advance of the new year full of conviction of certain victory and optimism and bolstering up the defence capability of the country in every way.


Adam Cathcart

Not to contradict the data marshaled here, but Kim Jong Un did give a major non-military speech on January 29 for which the full text is available - This extensive speech contained not a single reference to the Army, but a couple of satellite references, and was almost purely focused on Workers' Party, for what it's worth. There was even some discussion about rehabilitating children of political offenders, which in DPRK context might even be interpreted as a (tactical and easily reversible) move toward liberalization. I'd be interested in learning more about how the missile test and the sanctions discussion cuts into or connects with the "no more belt-tightening" rhetoric in Pyongyang. Sounds like they are already blaming the sanctions for economic difficulties, which might be considered another important narrative emerging out of all this recent sulphur.


Adam: Thanks for the comment. Of course, leaders will give speeches in lots of venues and target message accordingly. But what struck us about these recent reports was the quasi-official nature of the bodies in question: an NSC-like "consultative" security group and an "enlarged" CMC meeting. These may prove ephemeral but that is part of the point: the leadership is not bound by formal decision-making structures as in China but is putting together ad hoc bodies of favored groups around an increasingly militarized foreign and domestic policy agenda.


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