North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has demoted his country’s highest-ranking military leader at the start of a purge of those held responsible for a mysterious “major crisis”.
The blame indicates that North Korea “is facing major economic and health problems due to COVID,” said Bruce Bechtol, a former Pentagon intelligence analyst and author of several books and studies on North Korea’s leadership. “They have done their best to hide it … [but] the country is in big trouble right now. ”
Having “already changed attitudes,”
The dismissal of Ri Pyong Chol from the Labor Party’s Politburo was confirmed in a photograph released by North Korea, showing dozens of top officials at a large-scale ceremony marking the 27th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s death, founder of the North Korean regime and Kim’s grandfather. Prominent in the picture is Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, who is not at the Politburo but is still believed to be the country’s second most powerful leader.
In an ongoing campaign to force the force back to the armed forces, Ri is speared in civilian clothes on the formal group photo in the sanctuary, where the bodies of Kim’s grandfather and father, Kim Jong Il, are embalmed under glass. His uniform would have shown its rank as a marshal over a coffin full of military medals.
The exact nature of the crisis is not clear, but the armed forces are widely blamed for not distributing food to a population that is persistently underfed if they do not starve. This failure is believed to have been a major reason for downgrading the top military leaders.
North Korea “is in economic trouble” from sanctions plus “China’s failure to deliver a major food shipment,” said analyst Shim Jae-hoon, formerly with Yale Global. “Food shortages are becoming acute now. Kim must guard his dwindling hard currency so he does not run out of emergency funds. ”
“People are dying of food and medicine shortages,” Jiro Ishimaru wrote to Asia Press, a news agency in Osaka, Japan that often reports on North Koreans’ suffering. “Since the beginning of June, the deterioration of the North Korean people has worsened.”
Ishimaru blamed the Kim Jong Un crisis for “closing the borders to prevent the spread of coronavirus and preventing people from entering and leaving the country.” He said he obtained information via a Chinese cell phone that was smuggled into North Korea. The news of North Korea’s problems is still coming out that way despite severe punishment, including death, for those captured using Chinese mobile phones.
The campaign against North Korea’s military leadership also affected the position of several others, most notably Pak Jong Chon, pictured still in uniform, but with a somewhat less elevated military rank.
“With his shoulder insignia changed, it appears that Pak was demoted from marshal of the Korean People’s Army, the highest military rank under Kim Jong Un, to deputy marshal,” according to NK News, an independent website in Seoul. Also, “Defense Minister Kim Jong Gwan appeared to have lost his rank of deputy marshal. His shoulder insignia showed four stars instead of the marshal’s star. ”
The shift at the top clarified Kim’s dissatisfaction with the military leadership, which he must exercise firm control over in order to be sure of his omnipotence, on top of a purge typical of Kim’s dynastic rule.
Kim Jong Un “appears to have resumed terrorist therapy by clearing many officials of his own catastrophic deficiencies amid a growing food shortage,” the Conservative said. Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest selling newspaper.
The paper quotes Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s largest party newspaper, which warned officials not to be “losers of the revolution”. Generous, Rodong Sinmun said “mistakes in the process are forgivable”, but then added ominously that “causing critical damage to our party, country and people due to irresponsibility and negligence is never acceptable.”
Kim Jong Un’s decision to honor the anniversary of his grandfather’s death simply rather than mark the occasion with yet another demonstration of military prowess adds to the impression of a desperate effort to strengthen the economy while downplaying the armed forces. Both Ri and Pak were key figures in the program for test-firing ballistic missiles and developing nuclear warheads, which has been out of the news too late while Kim tries to fire his finances.
Throughout it, his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, ranks high as an adviser and political decision-maker. She was among the speakers at the recent meeting of the party’s central committee, where her brother faithfully blew up the party for having been “lazy” and provoked “a significant crisis for the country and the people”. Kim Yo Jong is the daughter-in-law by Choe Ryong-hae, the country’s second – in-command as chair of the Standing Committee on the Supreme People’s Assembly. Choe’s relationship with Kim Yo Jong as well as his family as the son of an ally of Kim Il Sung against the Japanese in China before the Japanese surrendered in 1945, strengthens the power structure.
“Is she a Catherine de ‘Medici or just a Kellyanne Conway or something in between?” asked David Straub, a former senior US diplomat in Seoul. “I doubt anyone outside the inner circle of Pyongyang knows that. But since the dynasty is so important and she seems to be close to Kim Jong Un, I assume she’s pretty powerful, but only by extension and her own apparent ruthlessness. ‘”
Meanwhile, “big brother bears full responsibility for this immense measure” to close the Nordic borders, Straub said. “Did he do it because he is arbitrary and anti-scientific,” Straub asks, “or was it somehow part of an attempt to impose greater control over the party and the people?
“They are very concerned about the COVID situation,” Victor Cha, a Georgetown professor in charge of Korean affairs at the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told The Daily Beast. They are “still without vaccine support,” he noted, “and feel pressure to open some trade with China.” Then “smuggling may have led to some transmission” of the disease – “hence the castration of party officers.”
In the process, Kim Jong Un sees the chance to tighten his grip on power.
“I think the economy is largely faltering because Kim is trying to strengthen his control over the country by breaking the spread of capitalism, outside influence and economic independence for the rich,” Bruce Bennett of RAND Corporation told The Daily Beast. , but “Kim’s efforts are undoubtedly destabilizing.” Also interesting, he added, is “Kim’s decision to blame his elites for many of these problems rather than to blame the United States, the traditional scapegoat for problems in North Korea.”
Meanwhile, fear must spread through the ranks.
The transition “is undoubtedly a prerequisite for elites coming out,” said Lee Sung-yoon of Fletcher School of Tufts University. “In North Korea, degradation, scapegoat, punishment, intensification of terrorism and promotions are often delivered as a single package.” The “serious situation” that Kim mentioned, Lee told The Daily Beast, “probably refers to an exaggerated pretext for necessary tough measures rather than a major COVID outbreak.”
There is another cause for concern: Kim’s health. His appearance, which led the entourage at the shrine to his father and grandfather, sparked rumors that he may have suffered a brain hemorrhage, but the photograph of him in front and in the middle of the memorial showed that he had actually lost more than 40 pounds. Now thought to pack about 300 pounds on his five-foot, eight-inch frame, he apparently went on a weight-loss campaign while out of the public eye for nearly three weeks.
“A careful review of comments in the North Korean media plus Kim’s recent political behavior and probable intentions suggests that Kim’s weight loss is intentional and related to health concerns,” wrote Dr. Kenneth Dekleva of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School on the site of 38North, which traces North Korea to the Stimson Center in Washington. “A desire on his part to improve his health … and his actual health has enormous political implications for the Korean Peninsula.”