24 March 2019
North Korea's 'Songun' policy has given rise to powerful vested interests: the military and all the people who are associated with it. Photo: Reuters
North Korea's 'Songun' policy has given rise to powerful vested interests: the military and all the people who are associated with it. Photo: Reuters

Behind ‘Songun’: Is there also factional politics in N Korea?

Like any other political party, there is also factionalism within Pyongyang’s Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). It is because no matter how powerful Kim Jong-un may be, he absolutely can’t dictate everything in his party.

One might be able to notice that Washington’s policy on North Korea has sometimes appeared inconsistent because the hawks and the doves in Washington are constantly split on the issue. In fact the same situation is there in North Korea as well.

Let me cite two examples here to illustrate the dynamics of factional politics in Pyongyang.

The first example is the mysterious death of Otto Warmbier, a US college student who was arrested by the North Korean authorities on a charge of theft in January 2016 during his stay in Pyongyang, and who later fell into a coma while being held in custody and subsequently died on June 19, 2017, just six days after his return to America.

The prevailing notion among the international community is that Warmbier could have been murdered by the North Korean government so that he would never talk about what actually happened to him.

However, like I said in one of my previous articles, a lot of things simply don’t add up with this theory.

For instance, Washington and Pyongyang in fact had already reached an agreement over the release of Warmbier months before June 2017. Given that, inflicting deadly wounds on Warmbier to make him fall into a vegetative state is apparently not in Pyongyang’s best interests.

In fact the Trump-Kim summit may already have taken place six months ago had it not been for the death of Warmbier. So why would Pyongyang still hurt him so badly after it had promised to release him?

Besides, so far it still not known as to whether Kim Jong-un himself actually knew about Warmbier being in a vegetative state beforehand.

Another example of factional politics in Pyongyang is the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, in Malaysia.

Based on all the known evidence, it is almost without doubt that North Korean secret agents were involved in the death of Kim, and many have taken the view that it was Kim Jong-un who personally gave the order to kill his elder brother.

And thanks to this prevailing view, the infamous image of North Korea as a “terrorist country” has quickly spread across the globe.

Nevertheless, the question is, Kim Jong-un might be the paramount leader, but he might not necessarily be the only person in North Korea who has the power to give orders to the country’s secret service to do dirty work.

In other words, it is difficult for the outside world to conclude whether Kim Jong-un was truly the person who directly ordered the assassination of his brother.

And nobody can entirely rule out the possibility that it might have been someone else within the North Korean leadership who gave that order.

As a matter of fact, if Pyongyang eventually manages to improve relations with both Washington and Seoul, and becomes the next “gold brick” for global investors, who would be most disappointed? China and Japan may not feel comfortable with that, while the North Korean military would also be worried about the sweeping changes.

It is because under the decades-long “Songun”, or military-first, policy adopted by Pyongyang, the development of military might is to be given absolute priority over everything else.

Under Songun, soldiers, officers and generals have been enjoying unparalleled respect from society and, of course, a whole bunch of privileges.

According to US estimation, defense spending accounts for some 23.8 percent of North Korea’s total GDP output.

As we can imagine, while the bulk of the money may have gone into the country’s armament programs, a lot of it might also have gone into the pockets of the “military class” as well.

In other words, the Songun policy has given rise to powerful vested interests in North Korea, i.e. the military and the people who are associated with it.

As such, if Pyongyang eventually reconciles with the West and starts embarking on massive economic reforms while cutting defense spending, that may mark the end of the Songun policy and along with it, the exclusive privileges enjoyed by the military.

Worse still, once Pyongyang begins to focus its energy on economic development and attracting foreign investment, it is likely that the military will be replaced by a new privileged class.

Given this, leaders of the North Korean military indeed have every reason to resist change, reconciliation with the West and, above all, any deviation from the Songun policy.

Of course, North Korean generals can make a pre-emptive move and seize all the valuable social resources first like their counterparts in Myanmar did.

However, the problem is, Kim Jong-un might not allow that to happen. Also, he is very likely to cultivate a new economic privileged class to counter the old vested interests so as to guarantee the success of his reforms.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 31

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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