News / Asia

Report: North Korea Finalizes Power Transition

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (File)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (File)
SEOUL — A just-released independent, non-government report on North Korea concludes the transfer of power to Kim Jong Un is already complete. And, the report by the International Crisis Group predicts prospects for reform in the impoverished country are dim and the young leader could well be around for decades, with a growing nuclear arsenal.

The International Crisis Group in a report released Wednesday says despite this month's removal of a top military figure, there are no clear signs of any conspiracy to overthrow North Korea's new, young leader.

In recent days, South Korean and other media reports have quoted unnamed sources suggesting a power struggle may be underway in Pyongyang.

One report claims there was a gun battle amid the removal of vice marshal Ri Yong Ho. And, a Seoul newspaper Dong-A Ilbo says Ri, who was also chief of the army's general staff, was ousted after being heard on a wiretap criticizing Kim's plan to open the reclusive country.

The lead author of the ICG report, senior analyst  Daniel Pinkston says that Kim's father invested considerable effort to ensure his son would assume power securely.

"Kim Jong Un has a firm grip on power despite the purging of vice marshal Ri Yong Ho very recently. And, I believe the barrier to any collection action against Kim Jong Un and the Kim family regime is formidable. And, we don't see any significant policy changes in the near future," he said.

Senior political and military officials in Pyongyang are believed to be overseeing lucrative businesses in the state-controlled economy. Pinkston says some are earning "excessive and extensive profits" and Kim needs to walk a fine line between extending opportunities to a new coalition of supporters, while keeping some on board from his father's generation.

"You can imagine the fights or infighting over property rights and access to resources. And, that very well could have happened with Ri Yong Ho. Maybe Kim Jong Un and Ri had argued over resources or how they were going to be allocated or what kind of businesses Ri might have been operating in," he said. "Or, he might have gotten greedy and tried to skim off extra funds."

Pinkston and other analysts note speculation about disagreement on policy direction or even an outright power struggle, but no concrete evidence has emerged.

Some analysts counsel caution about reaching conclusions, including on whether North Korea is poised to reform, amid a dearth of first-hand information.

The ICG report concludes "reform prospects are dim." Pinkston says the scant evidence that has emerged from Pyongyang does not back up assertions such change is beginning.

"Simple change does not mean reform. Reform, in my view, means changing governance, changing the institutions, relying more upon markets for resource allocation. It means moving more towards the rule of law, empowering enterprises and people so that they can act in the market and engage in entrepreneurial activities. We don't see any of that going on in North Korea yet," he said.

One Western intelligence source tells VOA there are no indications of fundamental change, but interesting events are taking place in Pyongyang on nearly a "day-to-day basis." These include shuffling of high-ranking personnel and moves to further bolster the image of the inexperienced supreme leader, as well as renewed harsh criticism of South Korea's president.

One major concern in the intelligence community is whether Pyongyang is focused on internal matters or will again try to create an external crisis - such as a military provocation, a missile test cloaked as a satellite launch or even another underground nuclear detonation - to bolster Kim Jong Un.

"If the leadership - and Kim Jong Un in particular - perceives those around him as viewing him as being weak and he feels the need to demonstrate some kind of power, military prowess, then they could try to engage in some kind of military provocation. And, they might do that if they believe it could influence the presidential election here in South Korea in a way that would favor them," Pinkston said.

South Koreans go to the polls in December to replace President Lee Myung-bak who is limited to a single five-year term. Seoul has no diplomatic ties with Pyongyang.
North Korea has firmly been in the grip of one family since Kim Il Sung, the current  leader's grandfather, was installed by Russia in 1945.

The ICG report says, without the resources to sustain a conventional arms race, the current leader, believed to be 29 years old, will need to rely on nuclear weapons and other asymmetric capabilities for the security of his country.

North Korea has carried out two atomic tests and analysts say it has a long-term program to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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