Workers’ Party vs. Military Fight in North Korea?

Two stories out earlier today point to an internal power struggle in Pyongyang, likely in favor of the Workers’ Party (North Korea’s ruling party calls itself the Workers’ Party, not the Communist Party) over the military. According to Reuters, the new leader, Kim Jong-Eun, has sided with the party over the military in an effort to advance economic reforms and growth.

According to a separate story from the Chosun Ilbo (South Korea’s largest newspaper), there was a brief firefight this week when forces loyal to Kim Jong-Eun (and his uncle, the behind-the-scenes powerbroker Jang Song-taek) went to detain and remove from power the head of the North Korean army, Ri Yong-ho. According to government and intelligence officials in the South, forces loyal to Ri engaged those attempting to detain him, killing 20-30 soldiers and possibly injuring or killing Ri.

With Kim III’s assumption of power after a very short transition, such struggles were to be expected as he put his own (or his uncle’s) people in power. This week’s episode now becomes a leading example of that struggle. Going forward, if the military begins to feel threatened by an increasingly powerful Workers’ Party, things could get very dicey in the North. However, by replacing the head of the Army with a trusted loyalist, Kim appears to be mitigating those risks, whether the military likes it or not.

Any dynastic succession, whether ancient royal history or modern communist era, is going to have problems as power moves from one generation to the next. Kim Jong-il, when he took over from his father in 1994, faced the same issues. At the time, he sided with the military over the party to break free from his father’s center of power and create his own. Kim Jong-eun appears to be swinging the pendulum back in favor of the party, perhaps as a way of quickly winning allies for restoring the party to its former ‘glory’. It’ll be interesting to see if this marks the beginning of a dangerous military vs. party struggle for control, or was simply the final, public denouement of that battle.

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