North Korea in April: Defining the Future Under Kim Jong Un

Will Kim Jong Un (right) prove to be more like his father Kim Jong Il (left) or his grandfather (Kim Il Sung), or will his legacy be distinctly his own? (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

April 2012 promises to be an interesting month for North Korea and its observers, with at least four mega-events. The long announced celebrations to mark the 100th birthday of the country’s late founder Kim Il Sung will be held on the April 15. Two days before, the annual session of the Supreme People’s Assembly (the North Korean parliament) will convene. The fourth Conference of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) will take place on the 11th. Last, but not least, around the same time a rocket launch that has been criticized by the West as a missile test is set to take place.

April 15, 1912 was not only the day the Titanic sank. In a small village near Pyongyang, a boy with the name Kim Song Ju was born. Later, much like Lenin (Uljanow) and Stalin (Tschugaschwili), he adapted an alias. In October 1945, by then called Kim Il Sung, the 33 year old youngster was presented to the wondering population by the Soviets as the liberator of the country from the Japanese. Hardly anybody took the young man seriously back then, neither his Soviet protectors nor his much more numerous, senior, powerful and experienced domestic political competitors. They were wrong, as they later learned the hard way. By building and breaking alliances, first the Christians and then rival factions within the Korean Communist camp were eliminated or assimilated, until Kim Il Sung and his Kapsan guerilla faction had acquired a monopoly of power within the KWP.

Kim Il Sung smartly used the badly failed Korean War (1950-53) not only as a welcome occasion to eliminate some of his influential political foes. He also converted Korea into one of the hot spots of the Cold War and was thus able to force the Soviet Union and China to provide much more economic, military and political aid than either of them had originally intended. The costs for Mao Zedong included his eldest son Anying, still buried in North Korea. Even my home country East Germany, laying in ruins after World War II and the post-1945 demounting policy of the Soviets, and facing fierce competition from West Germany which prospered under the Marshall Plan, felt compelled to rebuild North Korea’s second largest city, Hamhung, at an enormous cost.

Skillfully playing Beijing against Moscow, Kim Il Sung gradually won political independence from his foreign supporters. However, in the early 1960s, when neither country was willing to play along anymore, Kim pronounced (and backdated) the juche ideology and thus gained ideological independence, as well. The price to pay was reduced economic aid; the reward included surviving the wave of political transformations that has swept the socialist camp since the late 1980s.

These are by no means old stories. Looking at North Korea’s present, we find interesting and disturbing similarities. China is a big and dominant ally; Kim Jong Un is a young, inexperienced man whose dress, haircut and body mass resemble his grandfather. It would be nice if the similarities would end here. The events of April 2012 are likely to provide more information on whether this hope is reasonable or not.

The Party Conference, the second in just 18 months after almost 20 years of abstention, is expected to be a forum for testing the new leadership’s personnel policy. Will Kim Jong Un clamp down on his potential competitors, does he already have enough loyalists, will he elevate them to top positions? Will he assume the posts of KWP General Secretary and Chairman of the KWP Central Military Commission, which would elevate him to the official head of state? Or will he emphasize continuity, stability and modesty, and implement these measures gradually? His decision will help us to gain a better understanding not only of the new power relations in Pyongyang, but also of the personality of the new North Korean leader. One thing we know already: this is not the long-awaited 7th KWP Congress. If the latter is not announced during the Party Conference in April, then we have reason to believe that Kim Jong Un is going to take it slow.

The annual parliamentary session has traditionally also been a forum for personnel changes. Ministerial positions are usually swapped, high-ranking officials retire “due to health reasons,” basic outlines of economic policy are announced. Among the most important documents, in addition to the Prime Minister’s report on the overall policy, is the report by the Minister of Finance who comments on the past year’s budget and the related plans for the new fiscal year. Considering that the state owns the economy, the state budget comes close to resembling the North Korean GDP, minus the sectors that are treated separately including, as is widely suspected, a large part of the military economy.

However, no absolute numbers have been provided since the reform year of 2002. Planned revenue for 2002 was around 22 billion Won, but that was before the July reforms that devalued the local currency and led to massive inflation. The budget has ever since been announced in varying cryptic formulations such as “expenditures on the economy” and in percentage terms such as “6 percent more than in the previous year,” not to mention the even less expressive “huge amount” to be spent on this or that key sector. It remains to be seen whether or not the death of Kim Jong Il has, in any way, disrupted the this annual routine, and whether we will see more precise information this time around.

Back to Kim Jong Un. Similar to his grandfather, and unlike his father, his initial endowment with legitimacy is rather small. Consequently, he is tasked with having to actively acquire the amount necessary for stable leadership. Kim Il Sung, after initial economic and social reforms, in the end, decided to attempt unification by military means. Fast forward to 2012, the first measures announced by Kim Jong Un after his father’s death, were a number of laws to facilitate investment, and the “Leap Day” agreement with the United States, which pledged a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the resumption of food aid. These measures provided hope that Kim Jong Un would deviate from his father’s policies.

Then came the déjà-vu: like too many times before, a North Korean signal that could be interpreted as a concession was followed by actions that are difficult to understand. The announced launch of a rocket from a newly built launch pad in the northwest—close to China and thus hard to eliminate by a “surgical strike” without some kind of political fallout—might indeed serve the North Korean space program. And as Moon Chung-in has pointedly argued, it could have been worse: a nuclear test or another clash in the West Sea. But there is little doubt about the military usefulness of the launch data. No matter whether or not this launch violates UN Security Council Resolution 1874, we are left wondering why just a few days before and without a pressing need to do so, a missile launch moratorium was announced that can easily be misinterpreted as having included space launches.

Is the launch an angry reaction to the extraordinarily long-lasting South Korean military maneuvers in March and April, a long-planned highlight of the April 15th celebrations, a sign of an internal power struggle between diplomats and military men, the expression of a lack of coordination, or a hint on the political priorities of Kim Jong Un? In fact, we have reason to believe that both the rocket launch and the Leap Day agreement were in the making before Kim Jong Un assumed power. He could have scrapped them but instead, decided to go ahead with both. Or was he just unaware or unable to stop any of them? The upcoming April events are sure to bring us closer to answers to these daunting questions.

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