North Korea Turns More Erratic as Kim's Inner Circle Shrinks

Kim Jong Un

Commuters in Seoul walk past a television screen showing Kim Jong-Un delivering a speech.

Photographer: Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images
  • Kim's purges leave almost no one who can speak to him candidly
  • Pyongyang's actions have become more perplexing, South says

Days after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, its official television network showed the regime’s No. 2, sixty-something general Hwang Pyong So, kneeling and covering his mouth to address leader Kim Jong Un, who nodded in his seat as he turned his face away.

The scene illustrated the absolute obedience Kim demands from his aides. That insistence on reverence also shows why one of the world’s most unpredictable regimes has become even more erratic. Just days before conducting the nuclear test on Jan. 6 that raised tensions on the Korean peninsula, Kim had spoken publicly of his desire for warmer ties with South Korea, and there had been reports a visit to China was in the works.

Whipsaw actions -- veering from provocation to conciliation and back again -- aren’t unusual for North Korea, but they have become more pronounced in the four years since Kim came to power. That may be due in part to a lack of considered counsel: He has ordered killed or sent away elders who served as advisers under his grandfather Kim Il Sung and his father Kim Jong Il.

“There is essentially no one now who could stop Kim if he gave an absurd instruction and turned stubborn,” said Oh Gyeong Seob, who researches North Korea’s leadership at the Sejong Institute near Seoul. “The regime’s unpredictability has grown since Kim came to power and most surviving officials are just pandering to his views.”

Kim was hastily groomed for leadership before the death of his father in 2011, and has sought to justify his power with adherence to his predecessor’s “songun,” or military-first policy. He’s focused on eliminating threats to his legitimacy and has questioned even the closest aides to his family, leaving him with only a handful of seasoned advisers.

In 2013, Kim had his uncle Jang Song Thaek executed after charging him with graft and factionalism. Jang handled relations with China, visiting Beijing in 2012 as Kim’s special envoy. Jang’s wife and Kim’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, the most influential woman under Kim Jong Il, hasn’t been seen in public since Jang died.

Choe Ryong Hae, a Workers’ Party secretary who took over Jang’s role, has not been seen near Kim for months, and South Korea’s intelligence service said in November he had been banished after falling out with his leader. In May, the spy agency said Kim may have ordered the killing of his defense minister Hyon Yong Chol with an anti-aircraft gun for disagreeing with him, though that claim was never been verified.

‘Publicly Deprived’

“Kim has publicly deprived himself of family members and close aides who can speak candidly to him,” said Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch blog. “Kim Kyong Hui, Jang Song Thaek, etc., all come from the same elite cohort and none seem to be around.”

Kim Yang Gon, a longtime family confidant who helped negotiate a deal to cool tensions with South Korea in August, was killed in a traffic accident two weeks after Kim ordered the nuclear test. Kang Sok Ju, a vice premier credited with designing North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship, has been hospitalized with a terminal illness, according to Madden, and Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister with a senior Workers’ Party post, hasn’t been mentioned in state news agency reports since October.

A lack of experienced advisers raises the question of who might confront Kim if he was rushing toward a full-blown crisis. While North Korea and South Korea have never formally ended their war of the 1950s, they have largely held to an uneasy truce.

Map of the explosion site, the Punggye-ri test facility in North Korea, and the region
Map of the explosion site, the Punggye-ri test facility in North Korea, and the region

Tensions are high in the demilitarized zone after Seoul restarted propaganda broadcasts in retaliation for the nuclear test. South Korea’s military fired warning shots Wednesday after spotting an unidentified aerial vehicle approaching its heavily fortified border, and the U.S. has flown a long-range bomber over South Korea in a show of force. North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun paper said Monday the bomber mission “pushes the situation to the brink of war.”

Kim has little experience with managing crises compared with his father, who sharpened his political radar and cultivated confidants from the Workers’ Party during his own decades-long grooming process. The former leader visited China to attend to ties with Beijing’s leadership even as he conducted nuclear and missile tests at home. The son is displaying a hot temperament less evident in his father, the Sejong Institute’s Oh said.

South Korea says Kim has created a “reign of terror” with his purges. Kim executed dozens of officials on charges ranging from graft to watching South Korean soap operas, the intelligence agency said in May.

No country feels North Korea’s latest uncertainty more acutely than its southern neighbor. President Park Geun Hye said on Wednesday that South Korea failed to predict the timing of the nuclear test and pledged to beef up intelligence capabilities. A South Korean Unification Ministry official recently said North Korea’s behavior toward Seoul has become more erratic. A May meeting of the Workers’ Party may see the promotion of more officials who toe Kim’s line.

“The potential for a miscalculation is bigger when you don’t have enough people working under you to provide the full, honest picture of what’s going on,” Oh said. “It’s becoming harder and harder to forecast where North Korea is going with its policy.”

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