Spotlight on Geopolitics

For a few weeks in April, Kim Jong-un has suceeded in making North Korea the hottest flashpoint on the planet. However, even as the international media was focusing on the war of words and the military posturing, inside North Korea significant changes were afoot.

According to Andrei Lankov, a Russian specialist on the Korean peninsula, “many superior officers of the North Korean army have been dismissed. The army has fallen under the control of civilian bureaucrats” (Rossiyskaia Gazeta). Korean Workers’ Party official Choe Ryong Hae was promoted Vice Marshall, ahead of career officers in line for the position – and the case is not singular. The army ranks have also been purged: of the four generals who carried Kim Jong-il’s coffin, three have vanished from public life without a trace and the fourth was given a minor civilian job. The same source states that the biggest surprise of the season was the return of Pak Pong-ju – a reformer previously fired by Kim Jong-il in 2005 – to the post of prime minister.

Taken together, all these changes could signal a desire to promote a Chinese-style version of modernisation in North Korea. Unlike China in the ’80s, however, which had been forced to create special economic zones in order to attract western foreign investment, North Korea might instead prefer to develop its backward economy with the help of major Chinese firms currently afflicted by the rising costs of domestic labour.

The replacement of the regime’s military cronies with civilians and the launch of another reformist drive seems a likely explanation as to why Kim Jong-un thought it appropriate to use threats of nuclear retaliation and to play the external menace card. If successful, the new political course could lead to diminished tensions on the Korean peninsula and beyond.

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