Whether related to the bluster of the past few months on the Korean peninsula or Kim Jong-un‘s increasing political consolidation of his regime, two senior North Korean officials lost their jobs. The most satisfying is the replacement of Kim Kyok-sik with Jang Jong-nam as defense minister.
Jang Jong-nam’s appointment is seen as the latest move by Kim aimed at trying to consolidate control since succeeding his late father in 2011. The announcement comes as tensions eased after weeks of warlike threats between North and South Korea, including vows of nuclear strikes from the North.
Pyongyang’s rhetorical outbursts against massive US and South Korean war drills and UN sanctions over the North’s February nuclear test were seen, in part, as a push to portray Kim at home as a respected military commander on the world stage.
Jang’s new role as minister of the People’s Armed Forces, however, is not thought to indicate a potential softening of Pyongyang’s stance toward Seoul and Washington any time soon, analysts said. Jang replaces Kim Kyok-sik, the former commander of battalions believed responsible for attacks on South Korea in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans. Outsiders do not know much about Jang, but analysts said it was unlikely that Kim Jong-un would name a moderate to the post at a time of tension with the outside world.
Mention of Jang’s new role was buried in a state media dispatch listing those who attended an art performance with Kim Jong-un. It is not known exactly when Jang was formally appointed to the ministerial post.
The other replacement could be even more significant. Sometime in March or April Pak Pong-ju became premier, and Adam Cathcart cautiously divines signs of policy drift toward Beijing.
New Focus International offers the most optimistic, “silver lining” angle by which to view these appointments.
The continuation of an antiquated and limited discourse influences how people outside the state and mainstream media discuss North Korea. If the discussion at the highest levels is shaped by an engagement/ containment dichotomy, subsequent debate will center on whether the regime will open and reform or remained sealed. It is only natural, then, that Pak Pong-ju’s emergence from obscurity to reclaim his post as Premier, and the return of the 6.28 reform measures, garner the attention of North Korea-watchers and interested parties as a ‘possible sign of impending reform’.
The concentration on the politico-military aspects in joint ROK-US diplomacy towards North Korea is detrimental to alternative and more effective strategies of affecting change. In addition to “miss[ing] the political and economic realities of the country,” in the words of Jang Jin-sung, it perpetuates an antiquated and increasingly meaningless narrative: the US and the ROK should be concerned with the regime in Pyongyang. Focusing on the regime crowds out room in the discourse for more serious discussion of the social, economic, and political implications of the rise of the market economy in North Korea. Though quotidian it may sound, “Setting up a Market Stall in North Korea,” is a transformative phenomenon.