It can be lonely at the top. But when that zenith lies over North Korea, where the Kim clan is apotheosized as supernatural beings, leadership brings booming isolation. Paranoia defines the regime, which is why elaborate structures are put in place to insulate power centers and stave off any potential ousting or coup.
Even so, it pays to be careful, and since coming to power in 2013, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has secured his position with a sweeping purge of the old guard. The latest reshuffle was revealed late last week as Kim prepared for a historic summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore on July 12.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that defense chief Pak Yong Sik had been replaced by No Kwang Chol, while Korean People’s Army (KPA) chief of the general staff Ri Myong Su — a renowned hawk, even by North Korean standards — had been replaced by his deputy, Ri Yong Gil.
Autocratic regimes typically conduct shuffles at times of significant exposure. “Your greatest concern if you’re a dictator is when you’re far away, as that’s when you’re most vulnerable,” says Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert at Troy University in Seoul.
Still, the latest rejig hides deeper significance. It’s perhaps unsurprising that those promoted are all significantly younger than their predecessors, and known for being Kim loyalists. But they also reinforce important changes to the apparat that Kim inherited from his father, Kim Jong Il, who injected authority into the KPA, under his trademark policy of Son’gun, or “military first.”
Since he came to power in 2011, the younger Kim has replaced hundreds of military top brass and refocused energy from Song’gun to his own political philosophy of Byungjin: meaning “parallel growth,” referring to the economy and nuclear program. Under Byungjin, influence has been stripped from the military and placed into economic and scientific spheres, particular weapons development.
Even though Kim remains officially chairman and so head of the KPA’s paramount Military Commission, under him the real power has shifted to the Politburo of the Workers Party. “That is the true power center and they are all very loyal to Kim Jong Un,” says Hoo Chiew-Ping, a North Korea specialist at the National University of Malaysia.
Workers’ Party central committee vice-chairman General Kim Yong Chol, a top Politburo member, has been ever-present by Kim’s side during his meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It was General Kim — no relation to the current Supreme Leader — who presented Trump with a peculiarly outsized letter from Kim in the White House, which seemed to get the previously stalled summit back on track.
According to Ri Myung, a former top North Korean official who has defected to the South and uses an alias, all of North Korea’s latest maneuvers have been conducted by influential Workers Party organ the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD). “The entire process of approach toward the U.S.-North Korea summit was orchestrated and guided by the OGD, from the new year’s message by Chairman Kim Jong Un to North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics,” he tells TIME.
As for the North Korean military, Kim Su Gil in May was appointed the new chairman of the KPA’s General Political Bureau, thus its de facto top brass hat. But his background is as party chief secretary — essentially the mayor — of the capital Pyongyang, where he oversaw a massive building project. Today, due to the number of tall apartment blocks that have been thrown up, some sections of the city have been dubbed, “Pyonghatten.” According to Cheong Seong-Chang, vice-president of research at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, “the selection of new heads of the military signals a dramatic shift in North Korea’s strategic direction.”
With a civil engineer in charge of the military, might this be rebuilding his impoverished nation? North Korea’s 1.1 million-strong military plays an important role in the construction sector, and currently thousands of soldiers are toiling day and night — the latter under the glare of enormous floodlights — to erect hotels and chalets in the southeastern Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist zone.
Reportedly, General Kim even suggested to Trump in the White House that the regime would be receptive to American “investment support” for a casino there. Foreign journalists returning from witnessing the destruction of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site last month were briefly detained in their hotel in Wonsan while the Supreme Leader paid a personal visit to construction work, indicating its strategic importance.
The question is, with his nuclear program “complete,” as Kim claims, whether he now intends to focus on the second spear of Byungjin: economic development. In 2013, Kim unveiled the creation of a dozen economic zones around North Korea’s periphery, with more announced in later years. However, these remain stillborn owning to unprecedented U.N. sanctions. But the nation is already considerably more prosperous simply by the fact that, under Kim, the state has stopped meddling in the marketplace.
Kim’s latest maneuvers indicate he is coming to Singapore with the intention to make a deal. Whether the terms will be acceptable to Trump, only time will tell.