On December 29, while the world was hoping for a bit of wintery weather for New Year’s, the real cold came out of Pyongyang, when Reuters reported an unusual car accident in North Korea’s capital:
A senior North Korean ruling party official and a top aide to leader Kim Jong-un has died in a car accident, the state news agency reported on Wednesday, the latest dramatic demise in the close circle of deputies to the country’s leader.
Kim Yang-gon, who was a secretary of the Workers’ Party and the head of its United Front Department, the unit that handles ties with South Korea, was Kim Jong-un’s “closest comrade, a solid revolutionary partner,” the KCNA news agency said.
Kim died on Tuesday in an automobile accident at the age of 73, the agency said. It gave no details of the accident.
The news must have triggered a red alarm for intelligence agencies monitoring North Korea. They know that with so little traffic, a car accident in Pyongyang is almost impossible. Besides, the 73-year-old Kim (not related to the 33-year-old kid leading the country) had his trusted driver in the front seat, and was well protected. And with no details provided about the accident that killed the country’s second most important leader, Western intelligence agencies must have presumed that North Korean government officials used the car accident to get rid of him. It would not be the first time. Except that this time, a plot seems to be a bit more difficult to untangle. Nobody expected that a man who became the most trusted adviser of the young Kim Jong-un only a few months ago would end up in disgrace so soon. And while the West was trying to decode the news and put it in a larger context, Pyongyang – now sure that it had the world’s attention – set off its new nuclear device, presumably a hydrogen bomb. (Though whether North Korea actually possesses a hydrogen bomb has yet to be proven.)
I haven’t noticed any reports or opinions that would connect the car accident and this latest nuclear test. But some facts make me think that a connection exists, and that old Kim Yang-gon was executed. Two days later he was buried with state honors in a ceremony during which Kim Jong-un bowed to his comrade and even shed few tears for him – similar to the performance that President Obama put on during the gala dinner for the White House correspondents, just a few hours before his commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Politicians have to be able to play this kind of masquerade. It is part of their job. So, in my opinion, it is a waste of time to look at Kim Yang-gon’s funeral as proof that the car accident was, in fact, an accident.
That said, there was some news related to that funeral. As IBT reported on December 31, one of Kim Yang-gon’s rivals, Choe Ryong-hae, appeared on the funeral committee list, which some experts see as a sign of an imminent promotion. Or better, in Choe’s case, this would be his rehabilitation, since he was removed from the position of Kim Jong-un’s top lieutenant and sent to the countryside for reeducation last October, when Kim Yang-gon gained the position of young Kim’s trusted adviser. So if Choe had a chance to bury his rival, it could also mean that another shift of Pyongyang’s politics was imminent. Indeed, less than a week after the funeral, the bomb exploded.
This harkens back to another incident two years ago, when another very close adviser of Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek – was executed.
Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea, wrote a long analysis of potential motives for executing Jang, who was young Kim’s educator and longtime advisor to Kim Jong-il. “Jang’s removal might however have some impact on North Korea’s relations with China,” Lankov wrote. “In Pyongyang, Jang was often seen as a China expert and was heavily involved with Sino-North Korean economic exchanges. Critical remarks about sales of resources to other countries at bargain prices might indicate that North Korea will become more hostile toward Chinese investment. Generally it seems that Kim Jong-un still harbors some expectations about the possible arrival of Western capital, and is therefore rather unenthusiastic about Chinese money.“
What Jang Song-thaek represented for China, Kim Yang-gon represented for South Korea. Despite the differing methods of the two assassinations are strikingly similar. Both Kim and Jang belonged to the generation of the leaders planted by the late Kim Jong-il – the father of the present leader, who came into power in 2011 with virtually no experience. But aside from getting rid of the last advisers and educators that his father chose for him, Kim Jong-un is also trying to reset the relationship with North Korea’s economically powerful neighbours, China and South Korea. Both countries were working hand in hand to contain the unpredictable young leader while trying to convince him to pursue the economic reforms his father started.
This latest nuclear test was not part of the plan that Seoul and Beijing had in mind for North Korea. It did not please Washington or Tokyo, either, for that matter. If we want to speculate a bit further, we might say that the two neighbours (China and South Korea) have been put at a distance with the elimination of the two high-ranking North Korean advisers; and as such, there is a chance for Russia to step back in. After the Korean War ended in 1953, Russia was the first ally of North Korea. The Soviet Union gave North Korea a huge amount of support, and only abandoned Pyongyang after the death of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In his expansionist ambitions and his new ideological mantra of protecting undeveloped countries from hegemonies, Putin would probably love to set foot in Pyongyang. And he actually could, now that the door have opened a bit. It was Choe Ryong-hae who, in November 2014, carried Kim Jong-un’s last letter to Vladimir Putin.
And the bomb? Well, the bomb was no doubt a message to the U.S. It was loud enough that even Washington could hear it – at least, that’s what Pyongyang hopes. And while it is difficult to figure out who in Pyongyang currently makes the calls, there’s no doubt that North Korea is back to its original plan, as Andrei Lankov writes in his column for the Korea Times. Lankov first denies the possibility that North Korea has the capacity to produce an H-bomb, and then explains Pyongyang’s real intentions:
The Holy Grail of North Korean diplomacy is, of course, normalization of relations with the United States, accompanied by large aid packages delivered from Washington. However, there is a serious obstacle in the way of this goal, namely, the U.S. demand for denuclearization as a prerequisite. This condition is non-negotiable. At the same time, the North Koreans are absolutely determined that they will keep their nuclear weapons, come what may. They believe that only nuclear weapons can save them from the sort of sorry and that terminated the regimes and lives of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi experienced. Like it or not, they might very well be right.
Hence, they appear to be angling for an improved version of the 1994 Agreed Framework, in which the U.S. and other interested parties paid North Korea to stop developing its nukes. Admittedly, North Korea has now tested nuclear weapons, so the United States is not happy about the idea of such a deal. Paying North Korea to stop developing more weapons while letting them keep what they have already made is basically tantamount to rewarding extortion.
Thus, North Korean diplomacy has only one hope: to terrify the United States to the point that Washington believes the political and financial costs of paying a random penalty are smaller than the cost of allowing North Korea to continue developing nuclear technology. The only realistic way to do so is to develop and successfully test a long range missile that is capable of hitting the continental United States, as well as demonstrate the ability to weaponize existing nuclear devices.
However, this is easier said than done. So far, North Korea’s nuclear devices are too large and heavy to be installed in warheads, and North Korea still has no missiles capable of reaching the United States. Thus gesture and bluff are what they have to use in this game.
Will this work? Most likely, it will not. Had North Korea been able to conduct a thermonuclear test, this would probably make some differences. But verbal claims just arouse modest media interest. If you want to use thermonuclear devices in a game of brinksmanship, you should demonstrate that you actually have one. Tests matter, statements do not.
If Lankov is right, then Pyongyang is the only place that still believes in the everlasting power of the U.S. But while North Korea might be wrong on this one, it is strongly hoping that stirring up trouble in the region will provoke some additional American effort to save the struggling country. After all, further militarization of North Korea could increase the arms race in the region, which would additionally overstretch and weaken the U.S. – hence why Washington does not want to take any action. At least, not for the time being. This may be the reason why Pyongyang is accelerating its pressure for some sort of immediate solution, before a potential change in U.S. politics after this year’s presidential elections. Or before it gets eaten by the aggressive Chinese economic model, which has already integrated the much bigger regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.
But what makes North Korea’s situation really explosive is that any collective effort to contain and tame the leadership in Pyongyang seems to be impossible, too. Japan, South Korea and China all have separate interests and ideas on what the best solution will be to stop the increasing militarization of Pyongyang. And this makes North Korea – a country that has always lived off of outsiders’ support – even more irrational and unpredictable.