North Korean leader Kim Jong Un talks with cadres. Kim las launched another purge in the military, undermining morale. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un talks with cadres. Kim las launched another purge in the military, undermining morale. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

As the world awaits word on the second Kim Jong Un-Donald Trump summit, all may not be well in the palaces of Pyongyang.  Indications are that cracks are appearing in the pillars of the North Korean state – the elites and the military.

A recent article in South Korean media reported on how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s latest round of purges has elites concerned. That follows another report that Kim is even purging his own guards for corruption.

The vaunted status of military officers in the North may be falling as Kim turns his focus away from the armed forces to concentrate on improving the nascent market economy.

It has been reported that the number of officers requesting permission to resign from the military has increased. The motivation behind the requests is reportedly to be able to participate in jangmadang, or private market, activities – troops have been forbidden from engaging in such enterprises.

Large-scale drug rings

There are even reports that some military officers, by virtue of them being able to move more freely about the country than everyday citizens, have taken to running large-scale drug rings. Military personnel, particularly officers, are rarely searched at travel checkpoints, making them valuable as couriers of drugs or other contraband.

These reports seem credible, given that it is well known that cadres in positions of authority have long taken advantage of their roles to take bribes in lieu of punishment for legal infractions. Some have been able to amass fortunes in this manner.

Kim is undoubtedly aware of all this and this is the factor that is likely the impetus behind his latest edicts to crack down on corruption. In addition to facilitating crime and reducing state income, illegal activities undermine faith in the socialist system, even though that faith has been severely shaken by the government’s failures in the past and by market forces that have been emerging since the 1990s.

For example, the Public Distribution System that reliably provided food rations monthly and other goods periodically has long-since failed the majority of citizens.

Meanwhile, even carefully screened and trusted officials are not immune. When Thae Yong Ho, the number-two diplomat in the North Korean embassy in London, defected to South Korea in 2016, he was believed to be the second-highest level diplomat to have defected. Now little more than two years later, an acting ambassador, Jo Song Gil, defected from his post in Rome and is apparently seeking asylum in an as-yet-unknown country.

Given widespread discontent with the regime, only the most trusted officials are allowed to travel with their families. Yet even these trusted few are now fleeing when opportunities present themselves.

Maintaining his grip

All these signals point to a struggle and discord among those who have been Kim’s most reliable supporters in the past. Without their support, Kim will be challenged to maintain his grip on power.

This does not mean that the end is near: many, many observers have in the past predicted the fall of the Kims, and been proven wrong.

Regardless, the regime looks vulnerable. With his self-proclaimed focus on the economy, Kim must produce improvements. Without dramatic economic advances in the lives of the North’s citizens – including the elites and the military – Kim will have a loyalty problem.

Most North Korea watchers agree that attempting to topple the regime from outside holds catastrophic risks for the region, and there is little doubt that Pyongyang would fight any such attempt. Despite bluster from Washington, this option is likely no longer on the table.

However, increasing marketization, as well as potential economic engagement with South Korea, looks likely to continue to adversely affect the privileged stature of many elites and military officers as their benefits and perks erode while the economy and market forces move to center stage.

If any resultant volatility in North Korea were to rise to the point that it threatened regional security in Northeast Asia, how Beijing, Seoul or Washington would react to prevent turmoil in the region is open to question.