Disappearance of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un could ease path to peace, coup or no
Kim Jong Un has apparently gone AWOL. His movements unknown, the reason for his sudden invisibility mysterious. Nobody in Pyongyang is saying anything. But then nobody in Pyongyang ever says very much.
Still, Kim has been hard to find since early September and the North Korean media have not posted any pictures of him inspecting a jam factory or shouting into a field telephone at some remote artillery post. “Kim watching” is bread and butter to the smallish coterie of Pyongyang Watchers and radio silence inevitably gets ratcheted up to suspicions of ill health, death, murder or coup.
In the world of North Korea analysis there’s no light comedy or gentle drama – it’s always straight to Macbeth! But hold on a minute before we put the U.S. Seventh Fleet on red alert or open up the bomb shelters in Seoul. We’ve been here before…
Rumors of attempted military coups among the shadowy Pyongyang elite have emerged regularly over the years. The 1950s and 1960s saw show trials of senior military personnel, when Kim Il-sung purged political rivals after sequestering himself and leaving analysts wondering where he’d got to. In the late 1960s Chinese Red Guards claimed that Kim Il-sung had been arrested by army generals after he wasn’t seen for a bit. A further purge of the military hierarchy reportedly followed, so maybe the Red Guards knew more than most.
Coup whispers swirled again around 1970, when only silence emanated from Pyongyang, but Kim eventually re-emerged.
There have long been rumors of a coup attempt in 1992 by Soviet-trained North Korean army officers, and later, of a planned coup by disgruntled and hungry army units in the then famine-stricken northeast of the country in 1995. In 1998 a reported shoot-out between police and soldiers led to a curfew in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-il dropped off the grid for a while, the skirmish was taken to have been a direct challenge to his rule and a coup attempt. But then he reappeared and the regime denied the firefight. In the last few years of Kim Jong-il’s reign we got coup rumor after coup rumor as his health began to fail and he disappeared from the spotlight at various times.
No sooner had Kim2 gone and Kim3 taken his place than coup rumors started circulating again. Most dramatically came accusations that Jang Song-thaek, his uncle, had been coup plotting. He was executed.
Now, to add to the current coup rumors, Hwang Pyong So, recently appointed director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army (the top political position in the powerful DPRK military) appeared in Incheon in South Korea sparking more speculation that Kim was gone and a coup had occurred.
Coups may well have been attempted in the past, but perhaps there’s a different, less dramatic way of looking at Kim’s current radio silence. It’s easy, given the opaque nature of the regime, to underestimate Pyongyang’s diplomatic skills. True, they may not quite do diplomacy like most of us, but if North Korea’s leaders didn’t know how to play a good game they would have sunk under the weight of their own economic collapse, failed self-sufficiency dreams and nuclear ambitions a long time ago.
Could it not be that Kim, and his advisers, have decided to accentuate their current diplomatic strategy of ratcheting down tensions and offering slender olive branches to the outside world (and particularly Seoul) by consciously downplaying Kim?
One lesson learned from the Kim Jong-il years was that often attempts to broker better diplomatic relations by Pyongyang floundered on their interlocutor’s dislike of Kim Jong-il. Frankly the Dear Leader didn’t help the engagement process. In interviews with the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward in 2002 (when crisis erupted after it was discovered that the North had restarted it nuclear program), President George W. Bush stated: ‘I loathe Kim Jong Il – I’ve got a visceral reaction to this guy.’
At home, where news is highly limited, Kim Jong Un remains the supreme leader, but what we may be seeing is a process of allowing others in senior positions more latitude and exposure to the current attempt at diplomatic engagement.
Rapprochement with South Korea is key to this process and requires a meeting to show good faith. It is still unthinkable that Kim Jong Un would make a visit to the South, but not Hwang Pyong So, who is now recognized as his Number 2, a position that would never have been so clear and signaled under Kim Jong-il. If a coup had occurred in recent weeks then it seems unlikely that the internal upheavals would allow for such a trip to the South so soon.
It is also worth noting that apart from Kim’s lack of a media presence for a while and Hwang’s surprise Incheon trip, there have been no other outward signs of a coup. The Chinese have reported no upsurge of refugees crossing the Yalu into China, as we might expect if there had been a change of regime; satellite images show no apparent major troops movements; Pyongyang (where news travels fast in what is the city of the country’s elite) remains calm by all accounts.
What we may be witnessing here is something far less dramatic than a coup, but no less important in many respects –- a shift from the traditional policy of the all-powerful, all-guiding “Suryong Dominant Party-State System,” whereby the supreme leader directly rules over the party, the government, and the military, to something more consensual among the elite. Kim Jong Un may now be accepting advice and delegating roles to a greater extent. His domestic position will remain dominant, a figurehead to the North Korean people, but internationally, and particularly in relations with South Korea he may be purposely taking a back seat to allow a breakthrough.
TOP PHOTO: North Korean soldiers are seen on a boat on the banks of the Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite to the Chinese border city of Dandong, October 6, 2014. REUTERS/Jacky Chen
INSET PHOTO: North Korea’s Hwang Pyong So, head of the North Korean army’s General Political Bureau and senior aide of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, attends the closing ceremony of the 17th Asian Games at the Incheon Asiad Main Stadium, October 4, 2014. REUTERS/Jason Reed