Saturday, July 21, 2012

North Korea: Ri Yong-ho’s Fall may not be the end, but just the Beginning, of the Power Struggle

SEOUL, South Korea — The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has begun stripping his country’s powerful military of its lucrative export rights in a bold attempt intended to both rejuvenate its staggering economy and curtail top generals’ influence, according to a Seoul-based Web site run by defectors from North Korea.

Although it is impossible to confirm most information about isolated North Korea, there have been hints that Mr. Kim might be unhappy with the stewardship of parts of the economy. In a speech distributed by the state news media in April, he said he intended to keep a tighter control on minerals exports, some of which analysts believe are controlled by the military.

“Some people are now attempting to recklessly exploit the country’s valuable underground resources on the excuse of earning foreign currency by exporting them,” he said, without mentioning who the culprits were.

In addition, South Korean news media this week quoted unidentified government sources who said an apparent fight over the military’s hold on important exports might have been behind this week’s dismissal of a top army official, Ri Yong-ho.

South Korean officials and analysts said it was too early to tell whether Mr. Kim’s reported plan to deprive the military of its ability to earn foreign currency, even if true, was a precursor for wider-ranging changes to North Korea’s ailing economy or just a means of taming the military.

The country’s previous attempts to experiment with economic reforms have mostly floundered in the face of the government’s fear about opening up to the world.

There is also no clear indication that Mr. Kim is backtracking from his vow, made in an April speech, to honor his father’s “military first” policy, which dedicated resources to building the country’s military might, including its nuclear program.

The Web site that covered the reported change in export policy, the North Korea Strategic Information Service Center, is one of a group of Internet sites that rely on defectors and their sources within North Korea. The sites have a mixed record, producing scoops but also contradictory reports that are not confirmed.

According to the center, which cited unnamed sources in the North, the Workers’ Party in mid-June began transferring all the military’s foreign currency-earning operations to the cabinet or an independent committee.

The report also quoted a policy statement that it says its sources read, but that was never published by North Korean state news media.

“The military has developed a taste for money,” the Web site quoted Mr. Kim as saying. “From now on, the party and the state will provide bullets and guns for the military, and the military should just focus on how best it can fight.”

That policy, if confirmed and enforced, would represent a significant shift in the role and status of the 1.1 million-man North Korean military, whose influence expanded vastly under Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December.

When North Korea faced a debilitating famine in the 1990s, Kim Jong-il counted on the loyalty of the People’s Army as the best protection for retaining his grip on power. He depended on the military to police the population. Although the military already had a source of income, running its own factories and farms, it gained more lucrative privileges under Mr. Kim, like the right to export not only weapons but minerals, mushrooms and seafood.

For years, defectors have reported that the change has fueled corruption among senior military officers and that their families have engaged in lucrative trade deals.

Many analysts in South Korea have suggested there is a continuing power struggle between the People’s Army and Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who is believed to have joined forces with allies in the Workers’ Party to undercut the military’s influence. Mr. Jang, a longtime party insider, is widely seen as having been designated by Mr. Kim to help revive the economy. Last year, he led the North Korean delegation to the groundbreaking ceremony for an industrial complex the country is building in the northwest with China.

Analysts see generals like Mr. Ri, who enjoyed the perks provided under Kim Jong-il, as the biggest potential stumbling block for attempts by Mr. Jang and party technocrats to experiment with economic reforms and openness.

“Ri Yong-ho’s fall may not be the end, but just the beginning, of the power struggle,” Cho Han-bum, a North Korea specialist, said in an analysis published this week on the Web site of the South Korean government-run Korea Institute for National Unification. “The question is whether the old forces, centered around the military, will revolt.”

- New York Times

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