On Saturday North Korea declared that it was “entering the state of war” with South Korea. This follows Friday’s statement from leader Kim Jong-un that “the time has come to settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation.” The boy leader—Kim is believed to be 29—left no doubt what he meant. At the same time, he signed an order to “mercilessly strike” the U.S. and its military installations in the Pacific.
This is, of course, bluster, yet the harsh words come at a particularly sensitive moment. The abnormal regime ruling the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is in disarray, and so the situation could quickly spiral out of control.
Every year Pyongyang makes bombastic threats before the U.S.–South Korea military exercises. Then the North Koreans go quiet when the drills begin. This year, however, the tantrum has continued, and the words have become increasingly dire. This month, for instance, Pyongyang abrogated the armistice ending the Korean War and threatened preemptive nuclear strikes on the United States. The one-a-day rhetorical blasts suggest something is terribly wrong inside the North Korean regime.
Young Kim took over in December 2011 after the sudden death of his father, Kim Jong-il. This means, among other things, that Kim Jong-un did not have time to install officials loyal to him or to learn the complex balancing required to keep the four regime elements—the military, the security apparatus, the party, and the Kim family circle—in proper alignment.
As a result, Kim Jong-un, now hailed as “supreme commander,” has had to rely on two relatives for support, aunt Kim Kyong-hui and her husband, Jang Sung-taek. As analyst Bruce Bechtol explains, you have to go back to 1949 to find a time when a North Korean leader has had a smaller group of supporters than Kim Jong-un does today.
That makes him vulnerable, especially because Jang is not only purging officials, but also dismantling the power structure put in place by Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-il favored the military over the Korean Workers’ Party, but Jang, acting in Kim Jong-un’s name, has been favoring the party by cutting the Army down to size.
These efforts, not surprisingly, have destabilized Pyongyang. Jang has stripped the military of much of its coveted revenue streams from illicit activities. About 70 percent of North Korea’s foreign currency business was conducted by the flag officers under Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-un, under Jang’s tutelage, has set about gaining control of that business. The new leader, for instance, shuttered Taepung International Investment Group, which has been described as the military’s conduit for investment abroad.
Jang is also said to have been behind the shutting of the notorious Room 39, the “slush fund” that was the center of disreputable activities, such as drug smuggling, the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, and the making of fake Viagra. This is not to say that the Kim regime is exiting illegal activities. As The Korea Times reports, “Experts say the developments may shift responsibility for attracting outside money to the party, which has been refurbished after gathering cobwebs under Kim Jong-il.”
Moreover, Kim and Jang have sacked top flag officers, most notably Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the respected chief of the general staff. Some analysts believe there was a shootout between forces opposing Ri and those loyal to him when he was deposed last July. Whether or not these rumors are true, it has become clear that Kim’s removal of the popular Ri did not sit well with frontline commanders. In a further sign of turmoil, Ri’s successor, Hyon Yong-chol, was subsequently demoted.
Kim Jong-un may have gone too far in upsetting the top brass, so much of his strident rhetoric today appears to be an attempt to appease old-guard generals and admirals. Kim and Jang may be the most powerful individuals in Pyongyang, but they are not in control of the military, and they have not consolidated power over other regime elements. As a result of the disarray, the hardliners seem to have grabbed control.
And don’t look to China to help tame North Korea, its only formal ally. China’s Communist Party is also struggling to complete a troubled leadership transition. In the turmoil of last year, the People’s Liberation Army has, from all appearances, emerged as the most influential faction in the ruling group.
China’s flag officers have maintained links with their North Korean counterparts and still hold pro-Pyongyang views. The Chinese military, for instance, has transferred at least six mobile missile launchers for the North’s new KN-08 nuclear-capable missile, thereby substantially increasing Kim’s ability to wage nuclear war. So instead of restraining their belligerent allies, the Chinese seem to be egging them on.
Kim Jong Un, therefore, does not have to worry about Beijing reining him in. And as he makes threat after threat, Kim is making it more difficult for himself to back down, especially since his regime has, over the course of decades, built its legitimacy on the use of deadly force.
North Korea is unlikely to resort to violence while the annual U.S.–South Korea military exercises continue and our readiness is high. Yet in these fluid circumstances, just about anything can happen. The window for violence on the Korean peninsula is now open.