Kim's Ousting Of Top Military Officials Ahead Of Summit May Be A Sign Of Instability At Home

In a move we had been hinting at for some time, reports state that Kim Jong Un has reshuffled his top military cabinet ahead of a now on again meeting with President Trump and U.S. officials in Singapore on June 12th. 

Asahi Shimbun writes:

“No Kwang Chol, first vice minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, has succeeded Pak Yong Sik as defense chief, according to a source well-informed about North Korean affairs.

The opposition is expected in North Korea’s military ranks to a possible dramatic change in the country’s nuclear policy.

There is also an unconfirmed report that Ri Myong Su, chief of the General Staff of North Korea’s military, has been replaced.

If the two personnel changes are confirmed, they would mark the replacement of all three of the nation’s top military officials in six months.

Kim Su Gil, who was mayor of Pyongyang, replaced Kim Jong Gak as director of the General Political Bureau of the military in May. Kim Jong Gak’s appointment to the post had been confirmed only in February.

No and Kim Su Gil have been widely seen as moderates in the military.”

In the years following his ascendancy to the position of premier of North Korea, Kim Jong Un consolidated power via a series of notoriously brutal purges of top officials once loyal to his father. But just how firm his grip on power remains as he spearheads potentially drastic changes to the country’s long-standing foreign and defense policy is up for debate. 

We have long warned that even going into direct talks with the United States and South Korea, along with the imagery that goes along with them, is a threat to the country’s ruling military elites. Just last March, when Kim made his first international trip abroad since rising to power nearly seven years ago, we wrote:

“With U.S. and South Korean intelligence communities having only an opaque view into the inner workings of the regime, it isn’t clear if everyone is onboard with Kim’s abrupt change of course when it comes to foreign relations. For hardliners, inviting the American president for talks may seem like a catastrophic and dangerous move, one that could endanger their individual purpose in a future North Korea.

The regime relies on a constant existential threat from beyond its borders to keep its iron grip over its populace. Without grand enemies to point to the regime’s power could rapidly erode. In fact, it could endanger the very fabric of North Korean society, one that has been taught that Americans are literally monsters for the better part of a century. For the old guard in North Korea’s ruling elite, their business is a military standoff, without it, their positions and wealth could be in jeopardy. 

Even after a series of brutal purges that lasted roughly between 2014 and 2016, where Kim executed or removed long-serving officials with deep ties to China, and with potentially opposing visions for the country, it isn’t certain, especially at this chaotic time, that there aren’t still factions that want to see him removed from power. As such, leaving to China, which has also grown weary of Kim’s leadership, would seem to be a risky move unless he was totally certain that his grip on power is assured.”

With this in mind, and if the last minute changes Kim’s highest military aide roster did indeed occur, it would seem that there is a real fear of instability—or at least dissension—among the North Korean military’s top ranks. It is also notable that the usual military cadre that surrounds Kim hasn’t been omnipresent in photographs as of late, with Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong being far more visible than in the past. 

Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping at a second surprise meeting in Dalian, China on May 16th. 

Considering that Kim Jong Un will be leaving the country for the highly controversial summit in Singapore—only the third trip he has made abroad as ruler of North Korea and by far the furthest away, with the other two being to nearby China—if there was ever a possibility for a coup it would be then. These sudden personnel changes could reflect a move to preempt such an occurrence. 

But still, this doesn’t answer one of our biggest questions that has been outstanding since his first trip abroad in March—who is in control of the country’s nuclear arsenal when he is gone? North Korea doesn’t have any independent satellite communications systems to support a robust remote command and control system. Anything of the sort would be vulnerable as it would be provided commercially or by China. So clearly Kim’s power and the nuclear arsenal that goes along with it would be far more prone to commandeering while he is thousands of miles away ‘in the blind’ at a summit that largely goes against the country’s long-standing cornerstone as an adversarial military dictatorship.

Kim has had multiple meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. 

This sets up a highly interesting possibility that even if Kim Jong Un wanted to give up his nuclear arsenal and enter into the community of nations, could he actually do it? Would such a drastic move spark revolt from North Korea’s military ruling class and even from those who are considered ‘moderate?’ Time will tell if this even becomes an issue in the first place, as there is no real sign that North Korea intends to relinquish its nuclear weapons anytime soon.

Kim’s increased relevance on the world stage due to his abrupt change in tone is also clear, regardless of actual results. After multiple meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russia has also stepped into the high-level fray, sending their top diplomat Sergei Lavrov to Pyongyang to meet directly with Kim—the first time such a high-level meeting has taken place since Kim took control of the country in 2011. 

The visit not only gave us some unprecedented looks inside the country, but it also illustrated Moscow’s wish to become a more central player when it comes to North Korea’s emergence on the world stage.

Lavrov even invited Kim to Moscow to meet with President Putin and Kim was quoted as saying the following during the top Russian diplomat’s visit: 

“I highly value the fact that Putin’s administration strictly opposes the U.S.’ dominance.”

Lavrov also pushed for the quick lifting of sanctions if any deal was struck, stating:

“As we start discussions on how to resolve the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula, it is understood that the solution cannot be comprehensive without the lifting of sanctions.”

With China clearly reengaging with North Korea at the highest levels—which some said prompted North Korea to pull back from its rush to meet with the U.S. President—and now Russia stepping into the fray, the negotiations on June 12th will be an even more complex international affair. 

North Korean officials wave goodbye to Lavrov after his first visit to meet with Kim.

It’s possible that if the June 12th talks end up going nowhere, China and/or Russia could simply step away from the sanctions regime in exchange for security cooperation with North Korea and to foil the possibility of enhanced U.S. influence in the region. Either country could provide North Korea with everything it needs to maintain a stable economy and to even improve its defenses. Considering both countries border the ‘Hermit Kingdom,’ even a naval blockade couldn’t stop such a strategy from having a massive impact. It’s also possible that such a move would include focusing on negotiations between North and South Korea in order to increase the divide between Seoul and Washington.

All the international attention, especially from its neighbors with far greater resources, seems to have made North Korea’s new foreign relations strategy already a success. Even Syria’s Bashar al Assad is supposedly planning to travel to North Korea to meet Kim. If these reports are valid, it’s a strange move considering the countries already supposedly have a deep clandestine relationship, especially having to do with nuclear capabilities and chemical weapons. If the visit does occur, it will be the first time Kim has hosted the leader of a foreign country. 

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