North Korean Civil-Military Trends:

“Military First” Politics to a Point
Ken E. Gause
Strategic Studies Institute

Download PDF here:  Civil-Military.pdf

Unlike the study of other authoritarian regimes, first the Soviet Union and more recently China, which have given rise to a cottage industry of analysis on all aspects of things military, the same cannot be said of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), the armed forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In the small world of Pyongyang watchers, articles and books devoted to the KPA are few and in most cases deal with the armed forces themselves (order of battle) rather than the high command that oversees the machinery.

This monograph examines the role of the KPA within the power structure of North Korea. The author describes the landscape of military and security institutions that ensure the regime’s security and the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty. He also highlights the influential power brokers, both civilian and military, and describes how they fit into the leadership structure. Finally, he considers the role of the KPA in regime politics, especially as it relates to the upcoming succession and economic reform.

An understanding of the North Korean leadership does not mean only recognizing the personalities who occupy the top political positions within the regime. In his landmark book, Shield of the Great Leader, Joseph Bermudez noted that over its 50-year history, the DPRK has developed into one of the most militarized countries in the world, with the KPA existing alongside the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) as the two cornerstones of the regime. During this time, the role of the high command and its ties to the leadership and decisionmaking have changed.

The KPA was founded on February 8, 1948, approximately 7 months before the founding of the DPRK. As Kim Il Sung struggled to consolidate his power over the regime, his old comrades-in-arms, with whom he had fought against the Japanese, helped him purge the factional groupings and their leaders. After he had secured his power, Kim Il Sung relied on the KWP to rule the country. The high command played its role within the decisionmaking bodies of the state, but it paid its loyalty to the party and the Great Leader.

When Kim Jong Il succeeded his father as the supreme leader in 1994, he faced a regime divided among numerous factions, many of which did not owe allegiance to him. As a consequence, he embarked on a campaign of reshuffling briefs, purging the more dangerous elements of the regime, and making way for a new generation of leaders who would coexist and then slowly replace their elders. At the same time, he began to move more authority from the KWP and to place it within the purview of the military. This transformation of authority culminated in 1998 at the 10th Supreme People’s Assembly, when the National Defense Commission eclipsed the Politburo as the supreme national decisionmaking body. In the years since, the term “military-first politics” (son’gun chongch’i) has been used to signify the privileged status the KPA holds throughout North Korean society and to stress that the regime’s sovereignty rests upon the military’s shoulders.

This monograph tracks the rise of the military inside the North Korean leadership and presents the backgrounds of key figures within the high command and the formal and informal connections that bind this institution to Kim Jong Il. As the first generation has passed from the scene, Kim has consolidated his grip on the military slowly by promoting loyalists to key positions throughout the apparatus. He has promoted more than 1,200 general-grade officers on 15 occasions prior to April 2006. This has not only secured Kim’s power, many have argued it has enhanced the military’s influence over him, especially when compared with its influence over his father.

The question facing many North Korea watchers is the extent to which the military figures into decisionmaking. This report argues that, while the military has grown in stature and influence over the last decade, it remains one of many players within the North Korean policymaking process. The lines of authority and information within the regime are complex, consisting of formal and informal channels. The military has numerous avenues into the Kim apparatus, and on many issues have what amounts to a veto authority. This apparently was made clear recently by North Korea’s decision to cancel the test run for train services between North and South. But this does not mean that the military is the primary decisionmaker; that role still belongs to Kim Jong Il, even though he must weigh seriously military thinking on issues that reach far beyond the national security realm.

This monograph also argues that the KPA is not a monolith, but is made up of a range of views, some more hard line than others. Some senior figures within the high command are rumored to have pushed for reforms both internally and in terms of foreign policy, while many younger field commanders are believed to hold some of the hardest of the hard line views. But one area where there seems to be wide agreement throughout the military leadership is the need to fund the armed forces adequately because it is on their back that the nation’s security depends.

In the next few years, the North Korean leadership will face the implications of the “military-first policy” in very stark terms. If Kim Jong Il is to begin to bring the civilian economy out of the dark ages, the military will have to share some of the burden. But whether the high command will be willing to trade some of its “weapons for ploughshares” is not certain, given the current tensions on the peninsula. In the mix of what is already a contentious argument over guns versus butter is an unfolding succession struggle as Kim seeks to name his heir apparent. As in any totalitarian regime, the succession issue is huge and impacts decisionmaking across the board.

There is a note of caution when reading this report. The subject matter deals with information that is unfolding and will continue to shift in the coming months and years. The author has made every effort to validate through numerous sources the information contained on the various personalities, but in some cases it is still opaque. The reason for this is simple. Information on North Korean leadership issues is a closely held secret inside the Hermit Kingdom. The actions and activity of individual leaders are more often rumor than subject to check and verification.


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