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.

You May Like

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs