By Ken E. Gause, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ken E. Gause is director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a defense-related research organization in Alexandria, VA. He is the author of ‘Coercion, Control, Surveillance, and Punishment: An Examination of the North Korean Police State.’ The views expressed are his own.
Earlier this week, North Korea placed its missile on the launch pad at Dongchang-ri in the northwestern tip of the country. For the past few weeks, the world’s media has been focused on the inevitable launch, which Pyongyang says will take place sometime between December 10 and 22. But in all of the hoopla surrounding this event, the media (at least in the West) is missing another, potentially more important story percolating in the upper reaches of power in the Hermit Kingdom.
Last week, reports began to surface that Kim Jong Gak had been released from his post as the Minister of People’s Armed Forces. Rumors are that he has been replaced by General Kim Kyok Sik, a former chief of the General Staff and commander of the Fourth Corps, and said to be a hard-line officer whose fingerprints are on both the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong Island shelling back in 2010.
What makes this “purge” interesting is not the fact that it is happening – that is something Pyongyang watchers expected to see as part of the transition in power following Kim Jong Il’s death last year. What is intriguing is who is being targeted. Military figures who rose to prominence under Kim the father and were presumably dedicated to safeguarding the succession are now falling by the wayside under Kim the son.
According to South Korean sources, 31 senior-level military officers have been demoted or removed from their posts, including all four of the military figures who accompanied Kim Jong Un alongside his father’s hearse nearly a year ago.
Whereas Kim Jong Il’s leadership was centered around Military First politics and tied to the powerful National Defense Commission, a government body, Kim Jong Un is returning the center of gravity for the regime back to the Party apparatus, which was reinvigorated at the Third (2010) and Fourth (2012) party conferences. Recent North Korean media coverage of Kim Jong Un’s inspection of KPA Unit 534 (a cavalry company) made clear this reoriented pecking order as leading party figures were listed before military figures – something the Pyongyang watching community did not see under Kim Jong Il, when military figures were at the top of funeral lists and other leadership rankings. In addition, such rankings also make clear that the most powerful figure inside the high command is VMAR Choe Ryong Hae, the director of the General Political Bureau (GPB), which is in charge of surveillance and indoctrination of the armed forces. Even though he holds a vice marshal rank, Choe is not a military man, but a Party figure with close ties to Kim and his powerful uncle, Jang Song Taek.
Running alongside the reorientation of the balance of power between the Party and the military, Kim Jong Un is also conducting a widespread “loyalty check” of the leadership, down to the local level. This campaign is being used to identify Kim’s most loyal supporters and is serving to provide the guidelines for promotions and demotions.
Meanwhile, in addition to the apparent demotion of the military and rise in the profile of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), another sector on the rise is dedicated to internal security. The State Security Department has been catapulted into the limelight with high profile visits by Kim Jong Un to its headquarters. Its director, Kim Won Hong – who holds the rank of colonel general – is a rising star, having been appointed to all of the major leadership bodies: Politburo, Central Military Committee, and National Defense Commission.
Under Kim Jong Il, the SSD had taken a backseat to the Minister of People’s Security (the regular police) and the powerful General Guard Bureau, which is responsible for protection of the senior leadership. Under Kim Jong Un, the secret police has taken center stage in monitoring North Korean citizens’ ideological behavior and helping seal the country’s borders. Besides, the SSD, the Ministry of People’s Security has received its share of praise, especially the Korean People’s Interior Security Force (KPISF), a national guard-like entity dedicated to quelling social unrest and suppressing domestic rebellions.
So what does this delicate dance of power consolidation have to do with the potential missile launch in the coming days? On the surface, not much. But behind the scenes, both issues could be connected to the larger campaign tied to the transition of power. While the decision to launch the missile at this time may be tied to technical considerations or Pyongyang’s efforts to test the waters with a second Obama administration or the new administration in Seoul (which will be elected on December 19), it should not be discounted that the planned rocket launch more or less coincides with the first anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il and the inauguration of the young leader Kim Jong Un's rule.
In other words, a successful launch would highlight the end of Kim’s first year in power and underscore that the regime now belongs to him.