HONG KONG—Kim Jong Un’s recent shake-up of the military—he replaced his defense minister and the top two posts in the Korean People’s Army—is a sure sign he has not gained complete control of the regime.
Of course, the dramatic timing, on the eve of his historic meeting with President Donald Trump in Singapore, also means the personnel shifts have geopolitical implications. For instance, some believe they raise the possibility that Kim, by getting rid of a crusty set of officers, is trying to reorient his regime away from its relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
There is, however, another possibility to consider: Kim is trying to create the impression of impending reform in Pyongyang in order to buy time from Washington. In other words, the North Korean leader may be attempting to deceive the Trump administration so that it will not insist on quick dismantlement of his weapons.
In any event, it appears that Trump, who once was focused on immediately disarming North Korea, has bought this argument and looks to be promoting change in Pyongyang. This well-intentioned attempt, unfortunately, is playing into Kim’s hands.
Ever since Kim assumed power in December 2011, he has had a difficult relationship with the top brass. Kim Jong Il, his father and predecessor, had a songun or “military first” policy. The younger Kim quickly—perhaps too quickly—shifted resources and power to the Korean Workers’ Party.
Kim Jong Un’s policy was known as the byungjin line, or progress in tandem toward the building of a nuclear arsenal and the development of a vibrant economy. On April 20, the Korean Workers’ Party at its Third Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee announced the end of byungjin. Going forward, Kim’s policy prioritizes the economy.
Kim’s military-to-party shift in the structure of the regime has irritated generals and admirals. Some observers, like the veteran analyst Don Kirk writing in The Daily Beast, have raised the possibility they will launch a coup while Kim is talking to Trump in Singapore next week.
One-man regimes, by their very nature, are the least stable forms of government, and they are particularly vulnerable when that one man is out of the country. That is one reason Kim rulers have rarely left the confines of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Kim has tamed two of the three constituent elements that make up the North Korean regime, gaining quick control of the party and the security services. The third, the military, has remained partly beyond his grasp.
Of the three recent changes in general officers, the replacement of Kim Jong Gak by Kim Su Gil as director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army most suggests turmoil at the top of the military. Kim Jong Gak, after all, had held that crucial post only since February.
“Since taking power the military has been the weakest link in Kim Jong Un’s power base,” Bruce Bechtol of Angelo State University told The Daily Beast. “We continue to see the revolving door of powerbrokers in the North Korean military spin faster than the firing of generals commanding the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War.”
Nonetheless, Kim Jong Un can sleep well at night knowing that his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, had devised a system that protected the family’s position atop the regime. “Every aspect of the system is designed to prevent direct threats as well as conspiracies that would undermine Kim Jong Un’s power,” says David Maxwell, who served five tours of duty in South Korea as a U.S. Army officer. “It is one of the most effective oppression systems ever developed.”
Trump administration officials believe there is some level of discontent in the military over Kim Jong Un’s outreach to South Korea and the United States. That assessment seems accurate. For one thing, flag officers are surely loath to give up their most destructive weapons. Moreover, they undoubtedly are not happy with Kim’s change from military-first policies to what could be described as military-last ones.
The perception of regime instability looks like it is persuading Washington to lower its expectations. Reuters on Monday reported that a “U.S. official” said, in the words of the news service, that “U.S. negotiators’ efforts to press for definitions of immediate, comprehensive, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization by North Korea had run into opposition from the White House.”
From the White House? Why would Trump try to prevent his own officials from getting specific commitments on dismantlement of the North’s weapons programs?
Harry Kazianis of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for the National Interest, writing on the Fox News opinion site, reports that “a former senior national security official” serving George W. Bush thinks Kim’s negotiators may have told their American counterparts that Kim needed time “to shift our nation’s and our government’s internal thinking on this—we need some diplomatic space to do it.’”
This assessment is consistent with the president’s words Thursday that it might take four or more summits with Kim to obtain his commitments to disarm. The president Friday even used the dreaded term “process” to describe his administration’s efforts to disarm the North Koreans. He called the Singapore summit merely “a ‘getting-to-know you’ meeting, plus.”
Many observers believe Kim Jong Un is trying to reorient his regime. To do that, he needs buy-in from both elites and others. “The masses are not unthinking automatons,” Katharine Moon of Wellesley College wrote in a Reuters commentary Tuesday. “North Koreans will require basic explanations for why after decades of living one way—with nuclear aspirations reigning supreme and readiness for war as a legitimate sacrifice—they now need to put these ambitions aside and make friends with foes.”
Yet giving time to Kim is dangerous. With time, he can convince others—Russia, China, and South Korea—to give him sanctions relief. With time, he can further develop his nukes and missiles. With time, he can outlast Trump.
Trump at the moment has the leverage to force Kim to commit to surrender his weapons, and it looks like Kim, at least at this moment and perhaps for many moments to come, has prevented him from using that power.
The American president, therefore, owes an explanation to the American people why he is now prepared to live with a threat he repeatedly insisted was intolerable.