South Korean President Moon Jae-in (C) with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's sister Kim Yo-jong (L) and North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam, who has now been replaced. Photo AFP/KCNA VIA KNS
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (C) with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's sister Kim Yo-jong (L) and North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam, who has now been replaced. Photo AFP/KCNA VIA KNS

As a news media armada sets sail for Singapore, the site of next Tuesday’s Trump-Kim meeting, Pyongyang watchers have been incentivized to seize upon any clue as to where all this is going.

The latest clue that has generated excitement – the Washington Post made it a “world alert” – came in reports from Japanese and South Korean news organizations saying that Kim Jong-un had removed three high-ranking military personnel.

Based on those stories, which cite unnamed sources, even otherwise even-keeled commentators raised hopes that Kim was clearing the decks for a drastic change of policy in which he’s switching his focus from militarism to rapid economic development.

As Jake Barnes says to Lady Brett Ashley in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

True, governments undergoing major policy transformations tend to change key players. True, most of the rest of the world has been opining for decades that the sensible thing for the Kims would be to cast off their dynastic role as one of the world’s leading bad boys, grow up and start making their malnourished people rich.

And true, it’s in Kim Jong-un’s interest ahead of the summit to give the impression abroad that he’s making big changes. That’s just the sort of thing his Washington counterpart wants to hear, and wants the world to hear.

The article from Japan’s Asahi Shimbun says, again without explicit sourcing, that two of the new appointees “have been widely seen as moderates in the military.”

But while you’re looking for clues, read down to the final line in the Yonhap story: “The replacements may also represent a generational change, another intelligence source said.”

Indeed, Ri Myong-su, replaced as chief of the general staff by a man 15 years younger, was born in 1937, making Ri 80 or 81. Kim Jong-gak, replaced as director of the military’s General Political Bureau by a man about 11 years younger, is 77.

And while Pak Yong-sik is a mere 68 or so, his replacement as minister of the armed forces, No Kwang-chol, is Pak’s junior by three decades. Remarkably, No – a member of the young ruler’s own generation and clearly a rising star – had held the exalted title of first vice-minister for three years, according to Asahi.

“No had reportedly served as the chair of the Second Economy Commission, which oversees the financial issues of the military,” the Asahi story said. “Experts say North Korea could be forced to scale back its military of about 1.1 million members, including the section handling nuclear weapons and missiles, if it reaches an agreement with the United States over nuclear disarmament. Bringing moderates on board is apparently intended to rein in the possible opposition in the military.”

It would not be out of national character if it turns out one or more of the “promoted” personnel had been running their shows already, to one degree or another. A gerontologist could write reams of case studies of North Koreans kept in office past their primes.

For starters, recall that the country’s president is Kim Il-sung. Never mind the fact he died in 1994. Kim was gifted with an unusually strong constitution – the Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, that is. It designates him president for eternity.

Kim Il-sung’s son Kim Jong-il ruled from 1994 to 2011, but never as president. The country’s constitution makes him eternal general secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party. Third-generation leader Kim Jong-un has assumed neither title, but his active titles include chairman of the Commission on State Affairs.

The regime’s traditional pattern regarding top personnel tends to have the real movers and shakers in deputy positions. Grey-beards noted for regime loyalty in the – usually, very distant – past often hold the top titles, but are often only figureheads.

The rulers’ very special case aside, while many elderly incumbents overstay, that is not thanks to formal lifetime appointments. They may be removed and replaced as the ruler sees fit.

And the ruler has seen fit. Note, however, that two out of the three generals he dismissed, Ri Myong-su and Pak Yong-sik, had been among the nine officials accompanying Kim Jong-un to the April 27 summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

If those two were sufficiently on board with whatever the new policy might be that Kim considered them ready for prime time just seven weeks ago, what are the odds the young leader suddenly decided they constitute a serious internal challenge to his program – or even a threat to his rule – as some of the outside commentary suggests?

But let’s return briefly to the main question raised by this latest clue: Is Kim about to give up his nukes and introduce Deng Xiaoping-style economic reform and opening, forsaking his dynasty’s single-minded, decades-long obsession with reuniting the Korean peninsula under Kim rule?

Or does he think he can, as his predecessors managed to do in their own negotiations, extort enough concessions to stay in power without having to tear up the family playbook?

Consider the case of titular head of state Kim Yong-nam. This Kim, not a relative, as far as I know, was also one of the nine who accompanied Kim Jong-un to Panmunjom.

Kim Yong-nam has long been identified with the tactic of employing a peace offensive to persuade the United States to abandon its South Korean ally. He’s been at it, off and on, for four decades at least – he sat me down in Pyongyang for five hours in 1979 to harangue me on how a peace treaty and removal of US troops from South Korea would solve everything.

Has he had a change of heart? At 90? I’m afraid I must say that I doubt it.

Character is destiny, and to learn the regime’s character we must study its history. When it comes to personnel reshuffles, something on the order of a retirement announcement regarding old Kim Yong-nam might be what it takes to signal that I need to become less cynical and more optimistic about North Korea’s current peace offensive.

A Pyongyang watcher for four decades, veteran Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author of the novel ‘Nuclear Blues’ and the non-fiction ‘Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.’

Bradley K Martin

Bradley K Martin has focused on Asia and the Pacific as a journalist since 1977 and has worked as bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and Asia Times. At Bloomberg News he was chief North Korea watcher. He is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, a history, and of the speculative novel Nuclear Blues, set in a near-future North Korea after denuclearization and peace talks have failed.