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N. Korea may shift to more moderate policy

Publication Date : 19-07-2012


The prospect of North Korea taking a more moderate, progressive policy stance has arisen amid signs of its leader Kim Jong-un moving to reduce the influence of the military.

After the North revealed Monday the dismissal of General Staff Chief Ri Yong-ho, representing the conservative military group, some experts gave weight to the argument that a policy shift toward reform and openness is taking place.

Former leader Kim Jong-il had bolstered the role of the military under his “military-first” policy, which experts say was inevitable to push ahead with state projects at a time of economic hardships.

But as the exalted status of top brass appeared to be burdensome to him, the young, inexperienced leader Kim sought to reduce their influence, experts pointed out.

“After the socialist economy crumbled (under Kim Jong-il), the military took center stage and gained much power as it played a central role to shore up the economy,” said director of the World North Korea Research Centre.

“Without reducing the power of the top brass, Kim cannot push ahead with his own policy line. With the military power, the North appears to focus more on economy while it is departing from the military-first policy.”

The prevailing speculation over the dismissal of Ri is that there was some power struggle between Ri and Choe Ryong-hae, director of the General Political Bureau who has emerged as the centerpiece of Kim’s efforts to gain control over the 1.19-million-strong military.

The GPB under the direct control of the ruling Workers’ Party is one of the most powerful military organs that oversees military personnel affairs, including promotion and position assignment and disciplinary action.

Observers said that there could have been some conflict over reform and openness between the conservative military faction and Choe’s group of supporters. Military hardliners were seen as negative about an open-door policy.

Some reports suggested that Ri appears to have been reprimanded for the failed rocket launch in April. The launch broke Pyongyang’s February 29 agreement with Washington to put a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests in exchange for “nutritional assistance”.

The agreement was seen as crucial toward the resumption of the multilateral aid-for-denuclearization talks, which the North wanted to reopen as part of efforts to escape international isolation and gain economic assistance from outside.

“Should the influence of the military in state affairs shrink, conditions could be forged to focus more on economy rather than on the military itself. With the decreased power of top brass, Supreme Leader Kim could have more flexibility in his state governance,” said Hong Hyun-ik, research fellow of think tank Sejong Institute.

Chinese media also painted a positive outlook for North Korea’s economic reform, saying that the dismissal of Ri could signal a change in its confrontational military policy toward economic reform.

The dismissal came amid news reports that Pyongyang and Beijing are in talks over Kim Jong-un’s visit to China. The reports said that Beijing demanded that the North pledge not to carry out a third nuclear test as a precondition to accepting his visit to the North’s biggest patron and ally.

But some experts were skeptical that the removal of conservative military leaders could help spur North Korea’s reform efforts.

“I don’t think that the military brass have critically impacted major economic policies. It is premature and sort of an exaggeration to believe that the dismissal of Ri will help expedite any reform moves,” said Kim Young-hui, a North Korean defector and specialist on North Korean economy at the state-owned Korea Finance Corporation.


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