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N. Korean Conundrum: Are Political Changes Real?

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North Korea's army has been swearing oaths of loyalty to leader Kim Jong Un after he was given the new title of marshal of the nation, cementing his position. This comes just days after the army chief was dismissed for illness. Analysts suspect these announcements are masking far deeper changes, but there's disagreement about what it means.

"These events have happened with remarkable speed for North Korea," said John McCreary, a former senior intelligence analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff who now tracks national security threats at KGS, a government solutions company in Virginia. "Nothing happens fast in North Korea unless there is a crisis."

He believes the speed with which these appointments unfolded hints at a serious power struggle, saying, "The pace of events and the outcome means there was insubordination — military insubordination."

Possible Reasons

Just seven months ago, the dismissed army chief, Ri Yong Ho, was one of the chosen few walking alongside the car carrying the body of North Korea's late leader, Kim Jong Il. Ri was a key figure smoothing the power transition to the younger Kim, so his precipitous fall sends a powerful message. No one knows the reason.

"I don't think he was dismissed for health reasons," says Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia deputy project director with the International Crisis Group in Seoul, noting that senior North Korean officials often stay in honorary positions despite bad health as a gesture of respect.

"I don't think he was plotting or against the regime or Kim Jong Un, but it's not impossible," Pinkston says. "But more likely, I think he might have been involved in some kind of corruption scandal. I think, of the possibilities, that's a plausible one."

As the military lines up to swear loyalty to Kim, some believe this is a purge of the old guard. The man introduced as the new chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army, Hyon Yong Chol, was only named as a four-star general in September 2010. Others posit this could be a fight over resources.

In an unusual step, two civilians were appointed to the National Defense Commission, which oversees the army. They were Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Sung Taek, and Choe Ryong Hae, whose role as politburo chief, the top position in the People's Army, gives him control over the army's vital foreign currency business.

"There is speculation about a power struggle between the military and the bureaucrat or civilian side over this important source of funding for the regime," says Sheen Seongho of Seoul National University in the South Korean capital. "Military has been dominating all the foreign trade, and now the civilian side is trying to take over the very lucrative side of the business. If that is true, it's not only about power, but it's also about money."

It could also be a struggle over the country's very future. For years, North Korea has followed a policy of songun — or "military first." Since coming to power, Kim Jong Un has quietly emphasized the welfare of ordinary people. McCreary says this reshuffle points to a new direction.

"To me, the military-first policy of his father has been quietly downgraded," he says. "My assessment at this point, based on the limited evidence we have to date, [is that] the underlying issue was probably military priorities — and should the military consume so much of national resources?"

McCreary thinks Kim Jong Un is returning to the priorities set by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. "He appears to be channeling Kim Il Sung," he says. "That seems to be deliberate, as well as a result of the policy machine."

'Simply A Style Change'

Chinese analysts, though, think the military-first policy is still in place. "Significant changes are almost impossible in the long term," Wang Junsheng, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the China Daily. But the Korean Joongang Daily reports that seven North Korean officials have spent several months in China's richest village, Huaxi, studying its path to wealth. This hints at the possibility of economic changes ahead.

But other changes are undeniably already happening — among them, the appearance of dancers dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse at a concert, where women in short black minidresses also performed.

In a country where symbolism is all-important, the appearance of Western cultural icons such as this is no small matter. Watching the show was Kim himself, accompanied by a female companion who was fashionably dressed with stylish cropped hair. It's not clear who she is, but a first lady would be a marked departure from the days of his father, Kim Jong Il, who kept his personal life private and is only known to have given one speech in 17 years.

Kim Jong Un has given several long speeches and appears more charismatic and more prone to hugging people. But Pinkston, who has recently visited North Korea, cautions that such changes are superficial.

"This is simply a style change," he says. "But I would argue all of the structures, the political institutions, the indoctrination that goes on — all of those things are pretty much unchanged, so the system goes on as it was going on before."

As an orchestrated demonstration of loyalty to Kim Jong Un, soldiers danced in the square in Pyongyang. A ripple of instability appears to have passed, but no one knows whether it's over yet or whether it will spread.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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