Reading tea leaves in North Korea

Pyongyang (Photo: Korean Friendship Association)

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The sudden departure of its top military official has given a boost to the art of tea-leaf reading on North Korea. ‘Illness’, as announced, surely was not the reason the now ex-Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho gave up all his positions. At age 69, Ri was young by the geriatric norms of the North Korean senior ranks, and he looked healthy enough just a week earlier. This past half year he frequently was pictured next to new leader Kim Jong-un in ceremonies and ‘guidance visits’ to military and industrial units.

One theory is that Ri fell victim to an ongoing power struggle between the military and the party, which has risen from its subordinate position the last decade. North Korean watchers also detect a personal battle with others closer to the new leader, and possibly an over-indulgence by Ri’s family in the corruption that has become rampant in the land.

An interesting aspect to Ri’s departure is that it was announced at all. Demotions and dismissals typically take place in a media vacuum. But under Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang is changing its style: mini-skirts with high heels, knock-off Disney characters and lively television newscasts. The surprising transparency with which North Korea announced the failed missile test on 13 April was in accordance with this change. But transparency only goes so far. We see pictures of a new woman in Kim Jong-un’s life, apparently a former lead singer in a girl band, but no Facebook announcement about the nature of their relationship.

And what does this new style portend for policy-making? So far, the Mickey Mouse routine is all show. Economic reform may or may not be on Kim Jong-un’s mind, but so far there is no evidence of it, notwithstanding the consistent advice offered by China to follow its example. What one does see is a certain level of affluence in Pyongyang, and not just among the top 1%. In a country of 24 million, one million citizens now possess mobile phones. Creeping marketisation has an organic quality.

On foreign-policy matters, North Korea has manoeuvred itself into a diplomat stalemate, and not just because of the huge mistake Kim Jong-un made in so quickly abrogating the Leap Day deal with the US. North Korea has also bound its own hands by refusing to deal with South Korea. Six-Party Talks will not resume if there is no North–South dialogue. Instead of dialogue with Seoul, Pyongyang spews invective against South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

One positive note is that North Korea has not proceeded with the third nuclear test that appeared to be in preparation in April. No activity has been reported near the test tunnel since it was refilled in late May. Pyongyang said last month that there were no ‘current’ plans for a test.  Yet if the test shaft was plugged after a bomb was placed, it could still be readily fired at short notice.

I wish I knew whether Ri Yong-ho’s departure had anything to do with a policy dispute over nuclear testing or dissatisfaction with the young leader. In my cup, the tea leaves are too indistinct.


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