Aidan Foster-Carter on the DPRK’s 2012

Aidan Foster-Carter wrties in the Asia Times:

The first quarter of 2012 is almost over. Where did it go, so fast? And for those parts of the world where the calendar is marked by four distinct seasons – which doesn’t apply to much of Asia, but very much includes the Korean peninsula – spring has begun to arrive. Welcome warmth and relief, after the rigors of chilly winter: an especially harsh one in North Korea.

April can bring fresh breezes, and – switching now to metaphor – for both Koreas this looks to be the case this time in the realm of politics. It may be largely coincidence, but both north and south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) this coming month is set to bring very important political events, developments, and quite probably changes. Asia Times Online readers may well be aware of some of these already, but it might be helpful to consider them all together.

Let’s start in Pyongyang. North Korea often likes to spring surprises, but not always. We’ve known for a long time, because they told us so, that mid-April was going to be an important moment. April 15 will mark the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK’s) founding “Great Leader”. Kim died in 1994, yet officially he still remains the “Eternal President”.

Some years ago, the North set this year as their deadline for becoming a “Great and Prosperous Nation” (Kangsong Taeguk in Korean). For a country where many go hungry and most live at a very basic level, and whose economy is probably still smaller now than it was in 1990, that target always sounded a tad ambitious – or even a hostage to fortune. Surely it must risk provoking a reaction like the child to the emperor’s supposed new clothes, in the old fable.

Pyongyang has a few hastily-built new apartment blocks, and part of the Ryugyong Hotel’s vast pyramid will finally open, only 20 years late. But that’s it. Not much to brag about, is it?

No surprise, then, if they’ve decided to play down prosperous and go for great. The latter is vaguer, and can include military might as well. Which of course is what they’ve been trying to build up all these years at the expense of the economy. The Kims chose guns over butter.

I had long expected that North Korea would mark its founder’s centenary by letting off a big firework of some kind. Then, out of the blue, came the Leap Day deal with the US, whose terms included no nuclear or missile tests. That was a relief. No loud bangs after all, then.

Wrong again. For whatever reason – a cunning ploy? or warring factions in Pyongyang? – barely a fortnight later on March 16 North Korea announced plans to launch a space satellite between April 12 and 16. The satellite issue has already been much rehearsed, in these pages and elsewhere. Despite protests from everyone, even China, there is no doubt they’ll go ahead with it. North Korea doesn’t do backing down, especially not in a sacred season such as this.

However, I’m more interested in two other April events. February saw the late Kim Jong-il’s birthday (February 16) celebrated as usual – the only difference being that the “Dear Leader” was no longer around to enjoy the synchronized swimming, flower shows and all the rest. Then two days later it was announced that a conference of the nominally ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) will be held in mid-April. (No more precise date was, or has yet been, given.)

This is a big deal, since for decades such meetings didn’t happen. Note that this is not a full party congress. By the WPK’s rules those are supposed to be held every five years, but in practice they seem to have given up on them. The last one was the sixth in 1980, when Kim Jong-il – hitherto merely a rumor – was formally revealed as his father’s anointed successor.

So you might have expected a seventh WPK congress to be called to unveil Kim Jong-eun – but not so. Instead, for whatever reason in September 2010 they chose a subtly different and even rarer format: a delegates’ conference, not a full congress. There had only ever been two of those before, way back in 1958 and 1966. Now they’re holding another, barely 18 months after the last one. By North Korea’s glacial standards this almost qualifies as haste.

September 2010 was Kim Jong-eun’s coming-out party: the first time he’d ever been seen, or even named. So what does this new conference portend? I’d suggest three things to watch out for.

First, further enthronements for Kim the third. The three pillars of the DPRK system are the party, army and state – not necessarily in that order. Kim Jong-il held the topmost posts in all three spheres. When he died, the powers that be – but who be they? – moved swiftly to declare Kim Jong-eun commander in chief of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). First things first.

One down, two to go. Most likely, Kim will now formally assume leadership of the WPK as its general secretary. He may also take on a third key post, as chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC): the highest executive organ of state, outranking the merely civilian cabinet. Or that may come a few days sooner, at another meeting: read on.

Second, we might hear some new policy lines announced. But don’t bet on it. Kim Jong-eun’s legitimacy is premised on continuity with daddy and grandpappy, so that doesn’t leave much wiggle room. This is a big weakness of North Korea’s system. It desperately needs to adapt, yet any change of course would mean tacitly admitting that the Great Leader wasn’t so great.

Third, the WPK conference may see personnel changes, on two grounds. It must be awkward that the top party leadership are all at least twice as old – three times, some of them – as Kim Jong-eun. Even his dad was younger than most of them. These gerontocrats are dying off fast. Where is the rising generation that will follow them? Waiting in the wings, impatiently.

All systems need new blood, but like Aztec gods, the Kims also demand blood, period. There are bound to be purges now, just as there were when Kim Jong-il took over. Mid-April may thus reveal a new party line-up: Spot the missing faces, and wonder what has befallen them.

Here’s a grisly tale, though unconfirmed. On March 21 the Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo, citing South Korean government sources, wrote that an (unnamed) senior figure at the Defense Ministry went before a firing squad for being drunk during the mourning period. Next day, they revised the story. Kim Jong-eun ordered that there be “no trace of him [left] behind, down to his hair”. So rather than a bullet, this poor chap was executed by mortar round.

That’s North Korea. You do your level best: Stay endlessly loyal, jump through every hoop. You’ve a chest festooned with medals to prove it. Then one day the wind changes, your luck runs out, and none of your decades of loyalty does you a blind bit of good. Bang. Splat.

But even before the WPK meeting, we’ll get a peek at which skittles are still standing and which have been knocked out of sight. That’s an unkind but apt image for the wooden-faced platform party at the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), North Korea’s pretend parliament.

The SPA normally meets – for a single day, which gives the game away: no debate, it’s just a rubber stamp – in the second week in April. So when the party meeting was announced, I wondered if they might postpone the SPA this year in case mid-April got too crowded.

But no. They took their time, but on March 24 it was announced that the fifth session of the 12th SPA will be held on April 13. No doubt we’ll get the usual budget report. Wouldn’t it be nice if for once it had actual numbers? Then we’d know Kim Jong-eun means business. Any personnel changes to the cabinet or NDC may also be announced – or visible – here.

So mid-April will indeed be busy in Pyongyang. That makes logistical sense. Many if not most SPA members will also be WPK delegates, so holding both meetings pretty much back to back will save a bundle on train fares and accommodation.

As to the order of ceremonies, I’m thinking: 1. Rocket, 2. SPA, 3. WPK. That way the two meetings can hail the satellite and denounce its critics. But what if the launch fails? Maybe they’d just claim it succeeded anyway, as before. Still, they’re taking a bit of a gamble here.

The WPK meeting ranks highest. In logic it should and in theory it could come first: “mid-April” could be any time from April 10. Then again, remember the 2010 party conference was originally called for early September. We waited on tenterhooks as the month dragged on with no sign of it, until finally they held it on September 28. The delay went unexplained. But even in Pyongyang, getting their act together can take longer than expected.

Read the full story here:
The North: It’s one big party
Asia Times
Aidan Foster-Carter
2012-3-31

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