SEOUL — North Korea’s “military-first” policy — in which the armed forces receive top priority in funding, planning and everything else — will continue under the untested leadership of Kim Jong Eun, according to statements in the state-controlled media.
Kim was named the heir to power by his father, the late Kim Jong Il, whose 17-year reign was defined by “Songun,” the policy that said building a strong military was the Stalinist nation’s first — and perhaps only — goal.
The elder Kim developed tanks and long-range artillery on a par with those in far richer and more technologically advanced South Korea. He moved 700,000 of North Korea’s 1.2 million troops within 90 miles of the peninsula’s demilitarized zone. Members of the military were given preferential treatment, receiving larger food rations and better education for their children, according to defectors.
Under Kim Jong Eun’s leadership, this military-first revolution “will be given steady continuity at all times,” the Korean Central News Agency said Monday. The state-run newspaper published an editorial over the weekend headlined: “Korean people will accomplish the cause of Songun under leadership of Kim Jong Eun.”
The embrace of Songun underscores the challenge that Kim Jong Eun — who was tapped as the heir to power only months before his father’s death — faces as he tries to cement the loyalty of the nation’s senior military leaders. Those elite officials appear for now to be Kim Jong Eun’s most important backers. But they could quickly turn into his most direct threat, if the young leader pushes for reforms or wants to prioritize spending on something other than the military.
“Conflicts will begin when powerful people feel their interests are not being guaranteed anymore,” said Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies.
During his reign, Kim Jong Il told North Koreans that military might and nuclear weapons would protect the nation, and socialism in general, from imperialist U.S. forces.
But the strategy also had more practical goals: It gave his poor and hungry country sway on the world stage. The perpetual war footing allowed North Korea a convenient “crisis” excuse for its economic problems. And, for Kim himself, the military’s backing and endless displays of loyalty helped maintain his personality cult and hold on power.
“My power comes from the military,” Kim told South Korean journalists in 2000 (he reportedly enjoyed watching videos of military parades while aboard his bulletproof train).
The North Korean military is also virtually “coup-proof,” top experts say. Kim Jong Il created a system under which information landed on his desk and orders came from his office; units were rarely allowed to talk to one another, preventing them from coordinating any revolt against the government. Kim himself approved the promotions of all officers from battalion level and higher, grading them on loyalty, according to a 2004 report by Joseph Bermudez, an expert on North Korea’s military.
It will be up to Kim Jong Eun, then, to contend with the handful of senior officials who rose to power by pledging loyalty to his father. Experts say that any threat to Kim Jong Eun’s rise would probably come from the military elites — not from the ground forces.
Seoul’s intelligence agency has said that Kim Jong Eun, as he grows into the job, will depend on a collective leadership system that includes his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and other top military leaders. The savviest of them sit on the National Defense Commission, a 10-man board that Kim Jong Il declared the ultimate decision-making body more than a decade ago.
Jang is one of the commission’s four vice chairmen; the others have no direct connection to the family. Kim Jong Il was the commission’s chairman before he died, but Kim Jong Eun has yet to inherit a similar position, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification.
On Monday, when Kim Jong Eun visited a memorial palace to pay respects to his father, he was accompanied by at least eight members of the commission.
North Korea has, by design, a convoluted power system, rife with redundancies and built-in competition designed to prevent any one person from becoming too powerful. But analysts say that the top commission members hold direct sway over the Kim family. Or, at least, they’re close enough to hold sway if they want.
The first test for Kim Jong Eun will come, Bermudez said, whenever he tries to push for a decision — a military provocation or a policy change — that members of the military elite oppose.
“Kim Jong Eun is 27 or 28 years old, and there’s no person in the world who’s that age who is equipped to run a country,” said Bermudez, a senior analyst at Jane’s Information Group. “So that’s why he needs very strong support of counselors.”
At least at the beginning of his tenure, analysts say, Kim Jong Eun is likely to maintain the military elite’s support. It has less to do with the “Great Successor” himself than with the system he inherits.
“All of these guys, the small group at the top, they all have stakes in the continuation of the Kim family dynasty,” said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based security expert at the International Crisis Group. “So it would be very difficult, in my view, to oust Kim Jong Eun and renounce the dynasty.”
Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.