NK Military Has Little Influence on Major Policy Decisions

An expert on North Korea has recently disputed a widely circulated claim that North Korea’s hard line diplomacy is due to influence from the North Korean military.

Park Young Tack, an active duty officer at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA) said, “The North Korean military usually influences the policy decisions that are related to military roles and functions only.” Park wrote this in his recent article published on January 15 in the 2007 winter edition of the Korean Journal of Defense Analysis entitled ‘The Increasing Standing of the North Korean Military and the Military’s Influence on Decision Making’.

Park said, “Unless Kim Jong Il asks the military for opinions, the military cannot take part in matters other than its own.”

It is widely believed at home and abroad that the North Korean military exerts huge influence on the country’s major policy decisions and therefore is responsible for driving the country to take a hard line.

U.S, envoy Christopher Hill said prior to his visit to Pyongyang last year that he would like to meet high-ranking military officials and persuade them to give up the country’s nuclear programs.

Park said, “It is mistaken to believe that the standing of the military is superior to that of the Party as was the case in the past, and that the military plays a key role in decision making regarding the country’s fate.”

“Many believe that the North Korean military is trying to get in the way of the inter-Korean dialogues. However, that is exactly how the Party wants the world to assess the current situation in North Korea. It is my judgment that the Party has been manipulating the situation so that the military appears to take on the role of the hard-liners,” Park said. Park stressed that the General Political Bureau of the People’s Army by itself cannot voice opposition to the nation’s current policy toward South Korea.

Park said that Secretary for Military Munitions Jun Byung Ho, United Front Department Director Kim Yang Gon, and First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Suk Ju have established and are operating a direct reporting system to Kim Jong Il. Secretary Jun is currently responsible for conducting the country’s nuclear tests, Director Kim for operations of the policy through the direct reporting system [to Kim Jong Il], and Minister Kang for foreign announcements.

“It seems that Kim Jong Il allows the military to exert influence on decision making to some extent as a reward for the military’s pledge to help build and defend the absolute dictatorship of Kim Jong Il,” Park said.

“The military circles take part in making policy decisions by offering specialized suggestions and by advocating the Kim Jong Il regime which adopted the ‘Military-First’ policy among the ruling elite, the leaders from the middle class and the lower class,” Park said. However, Park added that the military has limited influence over matters other than its own.

Park said that Kim Jong Il is also strengthening the military-friendly system to watch and hold in check the military, which can pose the biggest threat to his regime.

“When making decisions, Kim Jong Il calls the ruling elite individually for consultations and has them report to him directly,” Park said, adding, “In any case, Kim Jong Il is at the center of the decision making process and stands at the top of the decision making ladder.”

“Kim Jong Il is a policy developer who issues policy proposals more frequently than anyone in the country. Any policy proposed by Kim is considered a supreme order and becomes a law,” Park said. “If an individual at the lower levels of the state wants to make a policy proposal, he usually first contacts an authority in the relevant field who then tries to read Kim Jong Il’s mind on the policy to be proposed. Only after he receives convincing words from the authorities, the low-level cadre is able to submit his proposal. That way, he can escape censure that would result from making an unsuccessful policy proposal.”

Park said that those working at the lower level of the state authorities cooperate with each other even if they work in different departments. If there are any policy shortcomings, they try to solve them together and share the responsibilities. They also create a task force between departments for policy implementation.

Park said, “This kind of political operation has come into existence for the following reasons: First of all, Kim Jong Il prefers to have an inner-circle, minimize the number of personnel, and simplify office procedures. Second, people at the working level have to worry about censure waiting for them when their policy implementation efforts end in failure.”

“Kim Jong Il’s administration style shows that he relies on an informal channel of communication with the ruling elite.” Park said, “He keeps a tight reign on all power groups within the country including the military, and no power group dares to challenge Kim’s authority. Even if united, these groups can hardly exercise any significant influence over decision making.”