Can Pyongyang change its 'military-first' doctrine?
Speculation is rife in the wake of the dismissal of the chief of North Korea's General Staff, who was widely seen as a mentor of that country's young leader, the ruling Workers' Party First Secretary Kim Jong Un.
A little more than three months since it launched its new leadership, uncertainty is heightening over Pyongyang's future course, meaning we must remain vigilant.
Two years ago, in the days of the late General Secretary Kim Jong Il, the now dismissed army chief was promoted to the post of vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the party's political bureau, or politburo, along with Kim Jong Un. The man was at the top of North Korea's military elite, concurrently serving as a member of the standing committee of the politburo.
In Kim Jong Il's funeral procession, the man walked in a leading position along with Kim Jong Un, and was seen a key figure supporting the new leader.
The meeting of the politburo that decided on his removal from all duties said the decision was "due to his illness," but some analysts believe there may have been a power struggle behind the decision.
New leadership style eyed?
Kim Jong Un, who earlier became a four-star general, obtained the post of "marshal of the republic" immediately after the removal of the chief of the General Staff. Kim Jong Un's acquisition of the topmost military position is thought to be a move to demonstrate that he has now a complete grip on the military both in name and substance, presumably in a bid to display the stability of his regime.
No other remarkable developments have been reported recently in the North Korean military, but Japan, together with the United States and South Korea, must continue to watch Pyongyang's moves.
While pledging to dedicate himself unconditionally to his father's teachings, Kim Jong Un has shown signs of a new style of governance different from that of his father in a number of ways.
In one high-profile example of this, North Korean media have disclosed that a young woman seen accompanying Kim Jong Un on various occasions is his wife.
He also authorized the TV broadcast of a performance by an all-female band, some of its members in miniskirts, during which an ersatz Mickey Mouse character made an appearance.
Such gestures appear designed to emphasize differences from his father, who preferred an authoritarian and mysterious pattern of behavior. There might even be hints that he favors North Korea opening up a bit to the international community.
However, the question is whether these changes may lead eventually to a change from Pyongyang's traditional "songun," or military-first, doctrine.
As Kim Jong Un himself stressed in a speech, North Korea's most urgent task is "solving food problems of the people."
Signs of economic reform
The task is to rebuild the North Korean economy in a way Kim Jong Un has pledged will mean people "no longer have to tighten their belts" and endure hunger.
He has issued instructions for steps to expand acreage of farmland and increase farming productivity. He has criticized the disorderly development and export of mineral resources that have been carried out in the name of "earning foreign currency." Apparently in connection with this, the new North Korean leader has come out with a policy of placing the management of his country's natural resources under the direct and integrated control of his Cabinet.
These could be signs of Kim Jong Un's resolve to embark on sweeping reforms of his country's economy.
The reality North Korea faces is that sanctions imposed by the international community, which North Korea brought on itself because of its nuclear weapons and missile development programs, have narrowed its options for economic reconstruction.
It seems that a transformation of North Korea's "military-first" politics into "politics placing top priority on the economy" would be extremely hard to realize.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 27, 2012)