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Hither and Yon

Unbelievable: Take your pick of unlikely North Korean power play theories

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
The world seems to be missing Kim Jong-un.
The porcine image of this overweight 30-something reviewing his troops or wagging a finger at a map or “ordering” a missile test had become a media staple until he vanished from view in early September.
Oh, we also like to read about his attractive young wife and new baby, which is what you would normally see in gossip or celebrity columns, not reporting on the leader of one of the world’s most repressive and isolated dictatorships. His smiling countenance seemed more suitable for that of a genial politician or perhaps a corporate official trying to act like Mr. Nice Guy in the presence of his loyal workers.
We should know a little more about how the North Korean leader is doing by Friday, Oct. 10, which marks the 69th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party — the same party of course that the kid is first secretary. He may indeed be a puppet for backstage figures, but you have got to believe whoever is pulling the strings on this stuffed marionette of a “Supreme Leader” would want to see him taking a bow in some meticulously staged event. Even if they have to drag him out of bed to do it, won’t it be necessary to show the multitudes that all is stable, nothing is amiss, and the rumors of his demise are just that — nasty rumors?
One risk no one should take is to assume definitively what’s going on in North Korea. Even if Kim Jong-Un fails to make an appearance Friday, it won’t necessarily mean he’s gone anywhere. His late father, Kim Jong-Il, often neglected to show up when expected. The previous leader’s longest disappearing act occurred in August 2008 after suffering a stroke. A French doctor subsequently flew in to save his life, and Kim and the doctor later joked about French wine and women — at least according to the account provided much later by the doctor.
As recorded by North Korean television, after his stroke, Kim Jong-Il never regained full mobility in one arm and walked slowly and carefully when present at gatherings of the Supreme People’s Assembly. He then dedicated the last two years and eleven months of his life to tutoring his youngest son on what to do after he disappeared from this earth. In death, Kim Jong-Il then assumed the titles of Eternal Secretary of the Workers’ Party and Eternal Chairman of the National Defense Commission.
For a long time the North Korean regime was reluctant to acknowledge that anything was wrong with Kim Jong-Il. In fact, they never actually announced he was suffering from anything, though word got around that he had a bad heart, diabetes and a few other problems.
With Kim Jong-Un it’s a little different. The regime has said that while the leader is feeling “uncomfortable”, he’s still basically ok. Maybe Pyongyang felt the need to admit his “discomfort” since he had already been seen on North Korean television limping — though he did his best not to show the pain.
Fueling even more speculation is the man who may just be North Korea’s most powerful figure, Hwang Pyong-So, who surprised everyone by leading a three-man delegation to the closing of the Asian Games in Incheon.
A Vice Marshal, although he does not really have a military background, Hwang arrived in full military regalia, medals dripping down as befitting his new post of Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission and head of the political bureau of the Korean People’s Army — possibly the highest position in the armed forces. Accompanying Hwang was the man he replaced as Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission, Choe Ryong-hae, who until recently was also a Vice Marshal, but now a dark-suited civilian. Choe showed up as a Secretary of the Workers’ Party along with Kim Yang-Gon, who is in charge of North-South relations.
The South Koreans were thrilled to see these guys. National Security Adviser Kim Kwan-Jin, normally reviled in Pyongyang propaganda, was photographed grinning genially at Hwang as if they were the best of pals. He and Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae joined their guests in talks that rambled on for hours.
So what’s going on here? Any chance the North will lighten up on the rhetoric, the warnings of long-range missile strikes that, if carried out, could be the opening shots of a regional war? While resolving a power struggle that no one begins to understand, are we in for a period of relative calm, even goodwill?
That’s an upbeat scenario. At the other extreme, we may be looking at possible chaos where the real power players, not necessarily the trio that made it to Incheon, assert their supremacy. No matter what, Kim Jong-Un remains a puppet, but then again wasn’t that obvious from the time he took over? How could anyone expect this ungainly fatso to be the real boss, even if the propagandists put out pictures of him riding a white horse as an absurd symbol of power?
Journalist and author Donald Kirk, has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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