North Korea On Its Last Legs?

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John McCreary was a long-time Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who now writes NightWatch, an overnight intel blog that’s well-read in the capital’s national-security circles for its acute observations. He’s warning this morning that yesterday’s promotions in North Korea show “a military-backed despotism on its last legs”:

Kim Jong-il (aka Chong-il) and his enablers/Reuters

North Korea: The Korean Central News Agency reported today, 27 September, that North Korean leader Kim Chong-il promoted a large number of general officers today. Those promoted include his older sister, the Minister of Light Industry, Kim Kyong-hui; his third son and heir apparent, Kim Chong-un, and four others to the rank of general, a four-star rank. He promoted 33 others to the ranks of colonel-general (3 stars), lieutenant general (2 stars) and major general (1 star). North Korea retains the Soviet system of general officer ranks.

Comment: Late September is not a regular promotion time and these promotions are not normal. For example, the two most prominent new “generals” – Kim Kyong-hui and Kim Chong-un – have never served a day in the armed forces. Kim’s older sister overseas the production and distribution of consumer goods for North Korean households. The third son has spent much of his life in Swiss boarding schools.

The fact that the leadership was constrained to promote Kim family civilian relatives to senior military ranks before the Party Conference convened is significant for several reasons. Most important is that it exposes the Kim family leadership’s recognition that its survival depends fundamentally on the backing of the Army leadership, not the Party elite. Kim Chong-il cannot govern without the Army and the Army cannot govern without Kim.

The Communist custom is for the armed forces to swear loyalty and obedience to the Communist party. In Communist doctrine, military dominance of the Party and State is a deviation called “Bonapartism.”

Kim Il-sung took decades after the Korean War to bring the Korean People’s Army under the control of the Korean Workers’ Party. Within months after his death in 1994, Kim Chong-il completely ignored his father’s legacy and communist doctrine and made the military first. He was nearly assassinated in August 1994 and needed the army’s protection.

The army now swears loyalty and obedience to the leader, in person, as the embodiment of the state. This is the ancient tradition of the Confucian kings in China and Korea. It is also the common practice in despotisms everywhere.

The second implication is that the popular notion of a Kim dynasty is a fraud. The North Korean armed forces are the source of leadership legitimacy.

The third implication is the promotion of Kim’s 64-year old sister and his 27-year old son to the rank of general sets a dangerous precedent. The last ruler of North Korea to fight for North Korea in the armed forces was Kim Il-sung. These promotions devalue the efforts of the real generals who have served long and hard to earn their promotions … and military service in North Korea is both long and hard. North Korean officers will see that these promotions are a travesty. South Koreans will ridicule them.

What is not likely to be known in open source materials is what kind of bribes, incentives and promises the Kim family had to make to obtain the army’s support for a 27-year old pampered youth who is now a general by decree and will soon be the commander-in-chief.

Today’s promotions represent an implicit admission by the leadership around the ailing Kim Chong-il that North Korea is not a communist state run by the Workers’ Party. It is a  military-backed despotism on its last legs.