The statement published on July 16th by Chosun Central News Agency caught my attention.
It read, “1) A Chosun Workers’ Party Central Committee Politburo meeting was held in Pyongyang on July 15th. 2) The entire Politburo standing committee, Politburo members and candidate members were in attendance. 3) The purpose of the meeting was to deal with an organizational issue. 4) Lee Young Ho was relieved of all of his duties, including Politburo Standing Committee membership, Politburo membership, and Party Central Military Commission Vice-chairmanship.”
Who is Lee Young Ho? He was a key military figure in the Kim Jong Eun system. He was the first person that Kim Jong Il went to for advice in ‘military-first’ North Korea. He was a very important figure. Yet, he was relieved of all his duties in one go.
North Korea claims that Lee’s removal was due to ‘illness,’ but there is much speculation as to what was behind his ‘purging.’ It was a strange decision, and one with even stranger timing. What is happening internally in North Korea’s power structure? The only clues we have are the four sentences in the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) statement.
So, let’s look over the statement.
Part 1 informs us that “a Central Committee Politburo meeting was held on the 15th.”
We know that within a socialist system a Politburo meeting is where important policies are decided. (Party Regulations, Ch. 3, No. 25: The Central Committee Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee meetings organize all party projects under the Central Committee.)
Meanwhile, the line in part 2, “attended by the entire Politburo standing committee, Politburo members and candidate members” tells us that this was a meeting with 35 attendees (excluding Lee). Yet, 30 of them were unnecessary, because the Standing Committee could have dealt with it.
At the start of Sunday, the Standing Committee had five members, though if Lee is subtracted from that too then only four remain (Kim Jong Eun, Kim Young Nam, Choi Yong Rim and Choi Ryong Hae). Seeing Choi Yong Rim and Kim Young Nam as “yes men”, then only Kim and Choi Ryong Hae remain.
Therefore, if the purpose of the 35-person meeting had been simply to remove Lee Young Ho it would not have needed to take place at all. Two, or at most four, people could have made the decision. It is true that we cannot rule out the idea that the name of the Politburo was borrowed in order to legitimize a fait accompli, but If that is the case then we must think again about North Korea’s internal power structure.
However, it is probably not the case. KCNA quickly reported on the Politburo meeting the day after it was held. Why did they report this Politburo meeting so quickly? Of course under Kim Jong Il there were no Politburo meetings so there was no debate about whether the contents were made public or private, but last year after Kim Jong Il’s death, a Politburo meeting was immediately held to enact Kim Jong Eun’s takeover. There is now a minimum required format, it seems.
Has there ever been a published report like this, though, one whose content could negatively affect the Party image? Even in the Soviet Union and China, the contents of Politburo meetings are not made public, except through informal channels and years later.
This wasn’t a media decision, either. KCNA and other state media in North Korea are under the direct control of the Central Committee Propaganda and Agitation Department. Therefore, all reports are ‘authorized’ by the Central Committee.
In structure, KCNA reports the news, both domestic and international, and Chosun Central Broadcast (domestic), Pyongyang Broadcast (towards South Korea) and other state radio and TV receive the reports and write commentaries and propagate the issues the reports contain. North Korea’s state, or propagandist, media serves to ‘educate the citizens’. Nothing is ever reported just for ‘entertainment’ purposes.
Then does this not make the recent report of Lee’s purge even stranger? Why did the North Korean authorities report so quickly the contents of a Politburo meeting that didn’t need to be held at all? Why give out such negative news to the outside world?
It all leads me to believe that the show was put on for both domestic and international purposes: to both justify and formally declare that Lee Young Ho had been purged on the one hand, and second to inform the outside world that “Young Ho has been cut out of this picture”. In other words, it is North Korea’s way of instructing China, South Korea and the U.S. to “pay attention to our reports.” Pyongyang has declared, very loudly, “The world should watch what we are doing.”
So what specifically do Kim Jong Eun, Kim Kyung Hee, Jang Sung Taek and Choi Ryong Hae want us to pay attention to?
Let’s review parts 3 and 4. The meeting was organized to deal with an ‘organizational issue’ and the outcome was that Lee Young Ho was relieved of his duties.
The report stated that Lee was relieved of all his duties, but it is likely that he had ceased to be Chief of Staff beforehand. However, this type of information is difficult to obtain from the outside. It would have been top secret, since the authorities perceive risk in releasing information on a vacant position at the top of the military to the outside world.
Anyway, parts 3 and 4 respectively state that a Chosun Workers’ Party organizational issue was discussed and that Lee was removed.
This could mean ‘Lee Young Ho was removed from all his positions due to an organizational issue.’ Thus, Lee was purged for organizational reasons. ‘Organizational issue’ in such a case could mean ‘acts against the Party’.
If so, should we inextricably link ‘organizational issue’ and ‘removal of Lee Young Ho’? And what is more important, ‘organizational issue’ or ‘removal of Lee Young Ho?’
The order of the statement is ‘North Korea revealed a negative report on the Politburo meeting’, then that it “dealt with an organizational issue” and last that “Lee Young Ho was relieved of his duties.”
If that order is of significance, then we must wonder what the North Korean regime’s next move will be. My guess is that the North Korean regime is ‘tuning its system’.
On September 28, 2010 the 3rd Chosun Workers’ Party Delegates’ Conference officially announced Kim Jong Eun as the successor. To strengthen North Korea-China relations, Kim Jong Il visited China three times. Following Kim Jong Il’s death in December of 2011, the Kim Jong Eun regime officially began. After the 4th Chosun Workers’ Party Delegates’ Conference in April 2012 and Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday celebrations, Kim Jong Eun, Kim Kyung Hee, Jang Sung Taek and Choi Ryong Hae started to explore the best ways to achieve ‘regime survival’, and this resulted in the removal of Lee Young Ho.
To put it another way, at the 3rd Delegates’ Conference in September 2010 the ‘Kim Jong Il road map’ for Party-military relations restored the role of the Party. Then, at the 4th Delegates’ Conference in April of 2012 it was announced that Party-military had been fully normalized under Kim Jong Eun. In this process, Choi Ryong Hae and Lee Young Ho came into conflict, resulting in Lee’s removal from all positions.
In other words, ‘organizational issue’ actually means ‘normalizing the Party’s status and role’. This, then, is the way the Kim regime is heading. If this is the case, those resources allocated to the military will have to be reduced and the number of men under arms will have to fall over time. Top military positions will need to be filled with Kim Jong Eun’s very closest people to make this possible.
Real socialist systems do not have ‘military-first politics’ or ‘Party-first politics’ because the party’s leadership status and role is ‘absolutely’ guaranteed in party-state-military relations. On paper, this is true in North Korea, also. The military is the “Chosun Workers’ Party’s revolutionary armed forces” according to Party regulations.
However, the Party’s absolute domination of power became ‘Military-first’, with the military taking precedence over the working class, during the food shortages following Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994. As we know, thereafter there have been nuclear weapons developments, the West Sea clashes, Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong Island shelling, all of which have heightened military tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Military-first politics survives through continuing military tension. Therefore, the ‘Lee Young Ho purge’ is a symbolic event, one which could change the meaning of ‘Military-first politics.’
Important questions remain: Why did North Korea publically disclose the contents of the negative news from the Politburo meeting?
Perhaps Jang Sung Taek wanted to send two messages to China, South Korea and the U.S., but especially to China.
First, he wanted to give out the message that the country will move towards a Party-centred system from now on and that Military-first politics will weaken. Therefore, those military tensions on the Peninsula that worried China will weaken, too.
Second, he wanted to send the signal that Kim Jong Eun’s power is such that he can cut off Lee Young Ho in just one blow. Therefore, the military is not a challenge to Kim Jong Eun’s power. (Moreover, Kim Jong Eun wants to prove that he has the sufficient qualifications to visit China as the supreme leader of North Korea.) The two are hoping that China will actively support the Kim Jong Eun regime hereafter.
If so, is North Korea trying to open up like China? In other words, is Lee Young Ho’s purge related to reform and opening? That, I’m afraid, is going too far.
If the Kim Jong Eun regime wants to improve its chances of survival it needs first to weaken the Military-first political system while coordinating the development of a Party-state-military system. Second, they need to solve food problems and other economic problems. Lee Young Ho’s purge is the first step in fine-tuning the Kim Jong Eun system, but it is a long way from achieving the rest.
Not only that. From now on the Party is meant to take priority over the weakening military. But will the military be satisfied with the return to Party-first politics? That is the great unknowable.