At 11:15 a.m. Korea time on Wednesday, the North Korean government broadcast that it would make a “special announcement” to the nation in 45 minutes. And for that three quarters of an hour, the specter of extraordinary political instability in the nuclear-armed North was suddenly front and center. Had the young leader Kim Jong Un, who assumed power in Pyongyang after his father’s death late last year, been deposed in a coup? Was he still alive? Only rarely in the history of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) had “special” announcements like this been flagged in advance on state-run television. The first time was when the country’s founder Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Un’s grandfather) died in 1994. Another was when Kim Jong Il died.
The announcement was going to come just a day after a startling shake-up in the nation’s all-powerful military. Just yesterday, North Korea’s most powerful military leader, Chief of Staff Ri Yong Ho — who had been close to Kim Jong Il and was thought to be a key supporter of Kim Jong Un — was sacked suddenly after an unusual Sunday meeting of the ruling party’s Politburo in Pyongyang. That stunned North Korea watchers. Just a week earlier, on July 8, the 18th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s death, Ri had been standing right next to Kim Jong Un as the nation’s leaders paid homage to the Great Leader. In Seoul this morning then, when Pyongyang said an announcement was coming, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak hurriedly convened a meeting of his national security advisers at the Blue House, plainly in anticipation of drama in the North.
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The special announcement, given the (justifiably) fevered speculation that preceded it, was anticlimactic. Far from being deposed or assassinated, Kim Jong Un had been promoted by the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) from the rank of general to marshal in the North Korean military. Prior to this announcement, there had been six vice marshals in the North Korean military. Now, the 29-year-old Kim Jong Un outranks all of them. (His father, by contrast, had been promoted to marshal, the most senior position in the military two years before his own father Kim Il Sung died.)
Anticlimactic, perhaps, but not insignificant. Many analysts have openly questioned whether Kim Jong Un was anything but a front man in North Korea. Shortly after assuming power, a senior U.S. official told TIME that the military would effectively run and control North Korea, given Kim Jong Un’s utter inexperience. His father had practiced “military first” politics in the North, in order to keep the generals happy, and there was virtually no one who thought Kim Jong Un would do anything other than what he was told by the generals. Now, in the span of two days, the country’s senior military figure — Ri — is out, and Kim Jong Un is the titular head of the military, as well as the ruling party. Cheong Seong-chang, senior fellow at Seoul’s Sejong Institute, viewed the Ri sacking as a clear collision between the military and the ruling party. The KWP has plainly won and so too, apparently, has young Kim Jong Un.
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If this analysis is correct, it arguably cracks open the door to at least the possibility of change in North Korea’s foreign policy. The military has been the staunchest supporter of the country’s nuclear program and has generally siphoned off resources desperately needed in a criminally poor country. If the events of the past two days do in fact signal the end of “military first” politics in the North — at this point, admittedly, still a big if — it would be the first significant surprise of young Kim Jong Un’s tenure in office, one that presents the possibility of more to come.
— With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul
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