Thursday, May 14, 2015

What next for the Pyongyang emperor?

Recent events in North Korea can give no comfort to observers who hope the country’s mercurial leader, Kim Jong-un, can be somehow brought to reason over his long-running confrontation with his neighbours.

All hope has now evaporated that the 32-year-old Kim, who assumed office on the death of his father in 2011, would adopt a more enlightened attitude towards international relations than had existed under his father and grandfather since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Instead the situation has got steadily worse.

Kim has actively pursued his country’s bid for nuclear weapons, and analysts agree that North Korea now has a fully-fledged nuclear program. Earlier this month there was a significant development with the reported firing from a submarine of a missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.

The United States has since dismissed this as a stunt, although there is general agreement that the incident was a test of the missile firing system itself. Even this is a clear indication of North Korea’s intention to develop such a capacity, although military experts say, the actual launch of a nuclear missile is still some years away.

Coupled with Kim’s recent actions, there is good reason for serious concern about the future for peace in northern Asia. The Supreme Leader is beginning to adopt some of the worst excesses of the Roman emperors (Caligula instantly springs to mind) with his extermination of family members and other senior advisers from his father’s regime.

Most recently was the bizarre execution of his Defence Minister, Hyon Yong-choi, blown to bits by an anti-aircraft missile in front of hundreds of spectators, apparently for the crime of dozing off during a meeting that Kim was attending.

South Korean analysts say this brings to 16 the number of senior officials who have been killed this year for real or apparent slights against the Supreme Leader.

While the ‘dozing off’ charge provided a ready excuse for dispatching Hyon it may well be that the Defence Chief had dared to reason with Kim over his obsession with nuclear weapons which, if ever used, could lead only to the destruction of his country.   

One of the world's foremost North Korea analysts, Andrei Lankov, says that compared with his father and grandfather, Kim has become dangerously trigger-happy.

He points out that Kim is young and inexperienced and may initially have been regarded as a lightweight by the officials in the regime he had inherited.

“This likely explains the near-continuous series of high-level purges since Kim came into power, including that of his own uncle last year,” Lankov says.

He believes there is at present no danger of an external initiative to remove Kim from power and absolutely no chance of a popular uprising from the country’s cowed and demoralised population.
The only possibility is a palace revolution among officials and advisers close to Kim. As the Defence Chief, in charge of the country’s 1.2 million-strong army, Hyon would present a particular threat.
But as the fate of Caligula attests, incessant purges of those around Kim will only make the survivors and successors more nervous. How this may play out over the weeks and months ahead will be watched very carefully in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.      


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