Is the Kim Jong-un regime rock-solid?

Updated : 07.03.2017

As speculation rages about the brazen killing of Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur airport last month, some South Korean government sources are using this incident to glean insights on the state of the North Korea regime led by his half brother, Kim Jong-un.

They agree that the killing showed how confident Jong-un is about ruling the reclusive state.

"It is true that Jong-un has confidence in his actions," said a high-ranking South Korean official. "Such a [murder] cannot be carried out if his regime is unstable."

Many experts on North Korean affairs agree only Jong-un could have ordered the murder of Jong-nam, the eldest son of their father, Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011. Despite knowing he would bear the brunt of worldwide criticism, Jong-un dared to order his half brother's killing, according to their analysis.

Growth rate of 1-3%

The South Korean government source based this analysis on several developments in North Korea.

One factor was Jong-un's New Year address this year. "My desires were burning all the time, but I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my ability," he said during the speech. It was unprecedented for a North Korean leader, who is portrayed as a perfect human being at all times, to publicly make a self-criticism. The South Korean government believes Jong-un feels confident enough about running the country he succeeded following his father's death to make such a remark.

Furthermore, on February 3, a spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry announced North Korea had dismissed its state security chief, Kim Won-hong, over alleged corruption. Won-hong was demoted from general to major general and fired after a corruption investigation by the ruling Workers' Party of Korea. Won-hong was regarded as a right-hand man to Jong-un and orchestrated several purges, including the 2013 execution of Jong-un's once-powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

"It is common in North Korea to purge a person who had been involved in mass purges, which was a tactic also employed by Kim Il-sung," a former North Korean official said, referring to the former North Korean leader and Jong-un's grandfather. "But such a method can be used only after the existing regime becomes stable."

Why, then, is Jong-un so self-assured about his rule?

The Rodong Sinmun, the organ of the Workers' Party of Korea, recently set up a new section on its website, featuring about 80 photographs and videos of reconstruction work under way in North Hamgyong Province, a northeastern region hit by major flooding in August 2016.

"When the flooding occurred, people were saying nobody could live in Hoeryong, near the border with China, or Musan County for years because of the sheer scale of the disaster," said a South Korean intelligence source. "But the state brought the situation under control without triggering riots by residents. This must have given Jong-un confidence [in crisis management]."

In addition, North Korea's economy is performing reasonably well. South Korean experts studying North Korean economic affairs put its annual growth rate at 1 percent to 3 percent in the past five years. "The figures aren't great, but they aren't bad either, considering the fact that North Korea is subject to extensive economic sanctions," one expert explained.

Since Jong-un rose to power, he has promoted a policy of simultaneously seeking nuclear and economic development. Jong-un approved the introduction of a market economy, initially by allowing economic activities in a free market. After the rise of the nouveau riche, he allowed new, large-scale economic projects, such as high-rise building construction, land and maritime transportation and even power generation. North Korean society has been transforming from one in which people work in accordance with their ability but receive equal wages, to one in which the harder they work, the more they earn. Suddenly, North Korean people are eager to work in this new economic environment, according to experts.

More provocation to come?

On February 12, North Korea successfully test-fired a new type of medium- to long-range ballistic missile, the Pukguksong-2, which traveled 500 kilometers after blasting off from Banghyon, a northwestern town. According to an analysis by South Korea's government, adjusting the warhead weight could boost the missile's range to 2,500 kilometers, which would cover the entire Japanese archipelago. Based on this new missile, North Korea is reportedly pushing ahead with development of its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The South Korean military has said it would counter a possible nuclear attack from North Korea by employing a three-pronged defense system: a kill chain preemptive strike system; the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD); and the Korean Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) plan, which includes attacks on suspected hiding places of Jong-un and other leaders.

But a source well-informed about South Korean military affairs is skeptical that such plans would actually be carried out. "No expert believes the plans are feasible," the source said. "In the past, no country in wartime successfully conducted a preemptive attack after detecting signs the enemy would launch a missile toward it. The United States just recently succeeded in developing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system, but it will take decades for South Korea to develop KAMD with its own technology. And how will we locate the people we want to kill when we don't have good military satellites or high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft?"

After the killing of Jong-nam, a North Korean source said: "If people think the world will shun North Korea following his murder, so be it. We will just go our own way."

North Korea will mark the 105th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth and the 85th anniversary of the Korean People's Army's establishment in April. The test-firing of the new missile and the killing of Jong-nam may be just the opening salvo of the North Korean regime's provocations against the international community as these key dates loom.

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This is a translation of an article from the March 2017 issue of Sentaku. The original article can be found here.