Kim Jong-un, A Marshal At Age 27 - Or Is It 28? Or Maybe 29?

on July 19 2012 6:22 AM
  • Kim Jong-un
    Showing of his prowess in a tank in an image from Korean state television. Reuters / KCNA
  • Kim Jong-un
    Displaying his military awareness to more experienced members of the armed forces, in an image from Korean state television. Reuters / KCNA
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Kim Jong-un has never seen a war zone. Other than the scripted military exercises the North Korean military performs for him, he has likely never been anywhere near a real battlefield.

That being said, the twenty-something (no one really knows for sure) Swiss-educated son of one of the world's more eccentric autocrats is now the supreme commander of the fourth-largest military in the world. On Wednesday, Kim Jong-un was awarded the title of Marshal of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The decision would be largely unsurprising -- after all, which autocrat is not in at least nominal command of his country's military forces? -- if it occurred in a vacuum. But other leadership changes over the past several days are pointing to a larger political reordering inside North Korea's top echelon.

Ri Yong-ho, a longtime vice-marshal and military heavyweight in North Korea, was relieved of all his positions in government, military, and the party on Sunday. The North's state media, Korea Central News Agency, said Ri had left his posts due to health reasons, but Western and South Korean observers are skeptical and point to a possible political shakeup.

Why Ri would have been purged remains largely a mystery and a subject of speculation. The 69-year old career officer served in high-ranking positions on North Korea's Politburo and Central Military Commission, and was also the chief of the General Staff (the actual man controlling and directing the military). Ri was also considered a supporter of the Kim family, tasked with assisting the leadership transition to the young Kim Jong-un after the death of his father Kim Jong-il last December.

North Korean state media announced on July 17, a day before Kim Jong-un assumed his new title, that Hyon Yong-chol, a high-ranking general, had been promoted to vice-marshal, and later to chief of the General Staff, essentially replacing Ri's former roles.

Kim Jong-un himself received the rank of four-star general (the highest rank below marshalship) in September 2010. On the same day, Hyon and another officer, Choe Ryong-hae, were given the same title. In April, Choe, who is not thought by analysts to have any military background, was made a vice-marshal.

Analysts think these new changes, occurring at the same time as a number of other demotions and promotions within the Korean Worker's Party and Korean People's Army, may be indicative of a growing trend to reduce the influence of the armed forces while strengthening the party.

Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea analyst at Leeds University in the UK, has written that the political struggles show various factions vying to gain influence over the new supreme leader.

That would be a significant shift, and not one without risk, from directions taken by Kim Jong-il in past years. Kim Jong-il undergirded the family's power over the country by promoting the loyalty of the military, which he did by championing a songun or military first policy. The military received vital state resources, including food and fuel, strengthening its influence in political and economic decision-making, even as the rest of the country suffered economically.

The new shakeup could indicate that Kim Jong-un wants closer control over both those processes and a reduction of the influence of the military.

Jasper Kim, the CEO of the Asia Pacific Global Research Group, told the BBC that the current events amounted to a reconstitution of the North Korea leadership from the old guard who were loyal to Kim's father to a new guard.''

Whether the new changes conclusively tell of an even wider shift in North Korea to adopt more open reforms still remains uncertain -- accurate information about the country, not to mention the regime, is still largely closed off to the outside world. However, analysts expect that pressures to reform from North Korea's neighbors (especially China), the young Kim's own flamboyant behavior, state promises to improve living conditions, and the promotion of unprecedented cultural events all raise hopes that the country may now move to adopt more progressive economic and social policies.

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