North Korean leader Kim Jong-un  in a pensive mood. Photo: Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a pensive mood. Photo: Reuters

Could a coup d’etat be brewing in North Korea? In February, the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) advised the Seoul government of a simmering military revolt in the North. Unfortunately, the NIS does not have a stellar record with regard to the thinking in Pyongyang.

Last week another story noted that various un-named Asian diplomatic sources believe military hardliners in North Korea are causing trouble for Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. The argument was that they worry about changes in the status quo that could put their cushy positions in jeopardy.

At the same time, another report stated that Kim was concerned that his regime could suffer a military coup while he is absent during his planned summit with US President Donald Trump.

Still, nothing looks imminent. The above reports are based on flimsy evidence, and North Korea, which is now in its third generation of Kim leadership, has proven to be Asia’s most stable dictatorship.

And yet, Kim is seeking very strong regime security guarantees, indicating his fear of sharing the fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Moreover – while these events are not widely known – such things have happened before.

Assassination attempts

Given the extreme opacity of North Korea, details are scarce. Still, several sources, among them the book Rogue Regime (Oxford, 2005), note that there were a number of attempts by the military to overthrow the regimes of the first two Kims.

One article reported revelations from an escaped North Korean intelligence official about several assassination attempts.

In one, a single gunman attempted to fire at Kim Jong-il, but was subdued before he could shoot. Another time, a driver of a large truck rammed a motorcade but did not hit the car carrying the second-generation leader.

In another plot, North Korean officers who had been studying in Russia intended to detonate a bomb at the Russian consulate in Chongjin in an attempt to draw a Russian reaction and overthrow the Kim Jong-il regime in response.

In 1992, a group of North Korean students who had been studying in Moscow – likely connected to the affair mentioned above – hatched a plot to kill Kim Il-sung and son Kim Jong-il during a Pyongyang parade.

A tank loaded with a live shell would target both Kims as the vehicle passed the reviewing stand. But a department chief in the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces decided to employ tanks directly under his own command,  inadvertently thwarting the assassinations.

The most serious situation arose in 1995 or 1996 – accounts differ, but it is relevant that Kim Il-sung died in 1994 – when commanders of the Sixth Corps of the Korean People’s Army in Chongjin mounted a mutiny after killing the corps commander.

The intent was to move south and solicit the assistance of the South Korean armed forces in overthrowing the Kim regime. Plans, according to the Daily Telegraph article, included targeted missile strikes on certain buildings in Pyongyang.

The coup was crushed when Pyongyang deployed airborne assets and sent a trusted vice-marshal to arrest all suspected revolutionaries. The Sixth Corps was dissolved, the unit designator never to be used again. Conspirators paid with their lives.

One source told Asia Times they were burned at the stake; other sources state they were locked in a building, which was then burned to the ground.

Additionally, over the last few decades, there have been localized civilian protests, though none approached the level of a general uprising or revolution. Examples can be found in a lengthy summary of March 2007 . And in 2009, there was widespread public anger at a currency reform; the regime eventually shifted the blame by creating scapegoats and purging related officials.

Reasons for failure

According to the book Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements (Westview Press, 1991), there are five factors necessary for a revolution to be successful, though even then, there is no guarantee of success.

  • There must be wide-spread, mass frustration of current domestic or political conditions to serve as the willingness to act.
  • A dissident elite political movement is needed. These are the people who would plan, inspire, train and lead others when the time came for open rebellion.
  • Some precipitating event or motivating ideology is required, something that would bond people together in a common cause.
  • A severe domestic or political crisis is necessary to establish an atmosphere conducive to change.
  • The outside world must be seen as permissive or at least tolerant – if not actually encouraging – of an uprising.

Another book, Insurgency in the DPRK? (US-Korea Institute at SAIS, March 2017), postulates six elements underpinning a revolution. Even though they address a post-collapse environment in North Korea, the elements can be generalized to apply to a military coup or civilian uprising.

  • There must be access to a sufficient number of weapons in order that rebels can hold their own against the authorities.
  • An elite force that is experienced and competent is needed to plan, train and lead the revolutionaries.
  • Disbanded armies – or great numbers of recently discharged veterans – are needed to serve as the fighting force of the revolutionaries.
  • Communication in the form of social networks is paramount so efforts can be coordinated.
  • A rallying ideology or unifying cause is vital to getting the population behind the revolution.
  • A safe haven or sanctuary is essential since those fighting the establishment will invariably need to fall back and regroup at some point during the effort.

Even though some of these factors exist and some elemental underpinnings are present, they are likely not enough for any North Korean uprising to succeed.

New potentialities?

At what is – at least, potentially – a historic juncture, senior brass may truly feel threatened by what the mooted Kim-Trump summit may portend: Their way of life and positions of power could be vulnerable.

But to succeed in any putsch, conspirators must coordinate. They must first agree that a coup is necessary, then undertake its planning and execution. In North Korea, revolts have been prevented through the security reporting system, under which even those at the top are closely monitored and reported on.

The result – as intended – is that no one trusts another. And the hideous ends of the Sixth Corps conspirators likely terrified any potential plotters.

All this suggests that pre-conditions for success are absent. Regardless, although such events are nearly impossible to predict, diplomatic events are now moving into uncharted territory. At such times, it is prudent to consider all contingencies.