New Leaders Forum

Understanding North Korea

Recent Features

New Leaders Forum

Understanding North Korea

The past month has seen a number of key developments in North Korea. So why isn’t anything clearer?

This month should have done much to reveal the true colors of Kim Jong-un’s leadership. The trouble is, we’re left with more questions than answers.

The Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) conference, the Supreme People’s Assembly, and the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth were essentially grand inauguration ceremonies for Kim Jong-un. The highlight of the centennial anniversary on Sunday wasn’t so much the massive military parade, but the first-ever public speech by Kim Jong-un, who recently acquired the official titles “First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” and the “First Chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC).”

The bulk of the speech delivered by the nervous-looking Kim was full of bravado about the might of the Korean People’s Army and the political system. Economic issues got some mention, though in no way proportionate to the seriousness of the socio-economic privations in the country. In sum, the fundamental structure of the state remains unchanged.

Until now, Pyongyang has been in overdrive working to consolidate the foundations of the regime in time for the festivities. Moving forward, North Korea can be expected to focus on fine-tuning its centralized and hard-line system.

At the political level, the generational changes in the upper echelons of the ruling elite points to the increasing centralization and complexity of the new regime. Kim is flanked by his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, and aunt, Kim Kyong-hui. At the same time, we are also seeing new figures. In particular, Choe Ryong-hae was appointed as the vice chairman of the WPK’s Central Military Commission, director of the KPA General Political Bureau, and a member of the NDC. With Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho and the newly appointed Minister of People’s Armed Forces Kim Jong-gak added to the mix, we can assume that these three will be playing key roles in Pyongyang’s defense planning and political affairs.

In terms of military affairs, the threat posed by North Korea is still very real. Some analysts have conjectured that Pyongyang could conduct a third nuclear test in the near future to compensate for the recent failed launch of unha-3. Indeed, there’s a good chance that this will happen. However, there’s another possible threat. As part of the dangui gunsa roson (military lines of the party), North Korea ismaking progress in diversifying its asymmetric military capabilities. These include, but aren’t limited to, artillery/MLRs, special operations forces, and cyber/electronic warfare capabilities.

While the new regime is inheriting the juche (self-reliance) and songun (military first) principles inherited from Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, it could be a mistake to assume that it’s going to be business as usual in dealing with Pyongyang. Given that North Korea has already undertaken military provocations even in this early phase of the succession process, it’s hard to be optimistic about what Pyongyang could try once it gains confidence.

So, how to deal with such a tricky regime? Ideally an offer could be made that Pyongyang simply couldn’t refuse, baiting it into a watertight agreement to behave once and for all. However, the country’s track record on adhering to agreements makes it hard not to be pessimistic. On top of this, Beijing’s leverage over Pyongyang seems to be diminishing (although it’s highly unlikely that the two countries will significantly alter the course of relations).

Ultimately, the onus is still on regional powers to come up with a more effective framework, meaning the United States, South Korea and Japan will need to devise coordinated, coherent deterrence strategies that can both deny and punish North Korea’s military provocations, as well as improve intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance. And yet all this must be done without applying so much pressure on the regime that it suddenly collapses.

The international community had years to try to understand the Kim Jong-il regime and it still allowed Pyongyang to give it the run around. With a new leadership in place in North Korea, we are left with even more questions than before, and still playing Pyongyang’s game.

Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi is a security affairs analyst affiliated with the FM Bird Entertainment Agency Scholar Project, a Sergeant First Class in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Reserve Component, and a non-resident SPF Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. The views expressed in this article are entirely the author’s own.