Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership
Is NDC Vice-Chairman and Minister of the People’s Armed Forces (MPAF) Kim Yong Chun (Kim Yo’ng-ch’un) seeing his profile wane while Kim Jong Un’s (Kim Cho’ng-u’n) supporters expand their power? It is not clear if Kim has entered semi-retirement and curtailed his activity in DPRK public life, or if, as ROK sources claim, he’s been “sidelined” due to generational differences with KJU’s supporters. In July, at the national report meeting for “Victory Day” (the signing of the armistice) chief of the KPA General Staff, Ri Yong Ho (Ri Yo’ng-ho) delivered the report; in July 2010 Kim Yong Chun had delivered the report. Kim also did not travel to China with Kim Jong Il in May, despite having accompanied KJI during both of his 2010 trips to the PRC. Kim’s domestic appearances with KJI are nearly half those of Ri; at then end of July, he was reported to have attended 17 of KJI’s public appearances and Ri was reported as having attended 32.
Kim, the minister of the North’s People’s Armed Forces, is known to have the trust of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and serves as a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, headed by the leader himself.
“Our intelligence officials have determined that Minister Kim has been effectively sidelined in the power transition process from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, and are carefully looking into the reasons and possible impact,” said the senior official from the Grand National Party (GNP), who declined to be named.
“I believe Minister Kim’s weakening position is due to generational conflicts and rivalries between his forces and Kim Jong-un’s younger loyalists within the military,” the official added. The heir-apparent is believed to be no older than 29.
The official warned that the situation has not only caused confusion within the North Korean military, but may also destabilize the Korean Peninsula.
“We should keep close tabs on the movements of North Korea’s military hardliners,” the official said.
Military tensions remain high on the peninsula after the North launched two deadly attacks on the South last year. On Wednesday, the two sides exchanged fire near their western maritime border, while reports emerged of a North Korean plot to assassinate South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin.
Speaking at a parliamentary meeting on Thursday, GNP leader Hong Joon-pyo said the North’s artillery rounds could be linked to destabilizing forces within its military.
“This kind of provocation from the North is not unrelated to conflicts between the military groups of the Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il generations and those of the Kim Jong-un generation,” he said, referring to the country’s late founder and president, who was also the current leader’s father.
“Especially as Kim Jong-un’s young hard-line followers gain power, (we are seeing) signs of confusion beyond the defense minister’s control. The shelling incident appears to be evidence of those signs,” Hong said.
However, some experts were cautious to draw such conclusions, saying other factors may have played a role in the defense chief’s weakening power.
Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Korea University, said Kim Yong-chun may be taking a step back to make way for a generational change ahead of Kim Jong-un’s succession. The scenario is plausible given that Ri Yong-ho, who is younger than Kim by almost eight years at the age of 68, received higher-ranking posts within the ruling Workers’ Party last year.
Ri, chief of the general staff of the (North) Korean People’s Army, which is equivalent to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in South Korea, was made a standing member of the party’s Political Bureau and as a vice chairman for the party’s Central Military Commission, a post only shared by Kim Jong-un.
Meanwhile, Kim Yong-chun was made only a member of both the bureau and the commission.
“(It) may be a natural step in the resignation process, considering his age and medical history,” the professor said.