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N. Korea's Kim makes his mark with an ax

July 17, 2012|David Pierson and Paul Richter
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to soldiers during a photo session in Pyongyang.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to soldiers during a photo session… (KCNA via KNS )

BEIJING — North Korea's tough-minded military chief is out. Disney characters are in.

Seven months after taking power in one of the world's most-closed societies, youthful Kim Jong Un appears to be consolidating his grip on North Korea, whose only two previous leaders were his late father and grandfather. At the same time, he appears to be putting his own, less hermetic, stamp on the nation's culture.

Answers to bigger questions -- whether to expect any meaningful change in North Korea's relations with the outside world or its ability to feed and clothe its own people -- remain far from clear.

There have been tantalizing hints recently of a new style of leadership, if not new substance. North Korea, which has long criticized U.S. policy and culture, included Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Winnie the Pooh in a concert televised last week.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 19, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
North Korean leader: An article in the July 17 Section A about efforts by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to consolidate his authority after seven months in power said that the country was being inundated with his visage. Recent propaganda has not depicted Kim visually but referred to him in written slogans.

On Monday, change came to North Korea's leadership. Military chief Ri Yong Ho was dismissed from the post to which he was appointed in 2009 by Kim's father, Kim Jong Il.

The military chief was said by state media to have been relieved of duty because of illness, an explanation that analysts were not necessarily buying. They say it is not unusual for senior leaders to keep their jobs, even when debilitated by serious health problems.

Ri, 69, who also served on the five-member ruling Politburo, was reportedly voted out in a special meeting Sunday, just months after he walked alongside Kim as they followed the hearse carrying the body of Kim's father, who died in December. The official Korean Central News Agency said early Tuesday that the country had named Hyon Yong Chol to replace Ri.

If the military chief was indeed forced out, the move might well represent a major effort by the untested Kim to cement control as he navigates among entrenched interest groups, including elite political families and the military.

"Ri being a powerful figure has a chilling effect," said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst at the International Crisis Group. "It sends a signal to anyone in the system that no one is above Kim Jung Un and anyone can be targeted for removal."

But Victor Cha, who advised President George W. Bush on East Asia, said Ri's departure was a sign that the transition "is still very much in flux." There is probably a large faction of Ri supporters who are unhappy with his dismissal, further sharpening tensions in the leadership, Cha said.

"There's a lot of churn on the inside," said Cha, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Some analysts said firing Ri could serve to improve ties with South Korea, and by extension, the South's allies in the West. Ri was elevated to his post just months before North Korea apparently sank a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors, and shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in 2010, killing four people.

Leonid Petrov, a Korean studies professor at the University of Sydney, said Ri's departure gave Kim something to offer South Korea.

"He could say, 'We punished him, we want to offer you an olive branch to improve relations,' " Petrov said.

In April, despite sharp international warnings, North Korea conducted a test of a multi-stage rocket that many had feared could be used to carry a nuclear warhead. North Korea gained little from the test -- the U.S. canceled a food aid program and the rocket broke up soon after takeoff.

American officials say they are reluctant to draw conclusions based on Ri's departure, but see little reason for hope that North Korea is on a path to reform.

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said the administration would judge the North Korean government by its actions and wouldn't be "spending a lot of time trying to read into personnel moves in what is one of the world's most opaque governments."

For generations under its family-run government, North Korea's tightly controlled population has been whipsawed by famine while the military was first in line for the nation's scant resources. As prison camps burgeoned, so too did the North Korean army -- one of the largest in the world -- and also spending on nuclear weapons development.

The emergence of Kim, who is in his late 20s and said to have once studied in Switzerland, could well mean more of the same. His father and grandfather, for example, engaged in purges of military leaders and in a pervasive cult of personality. The latter is now being repeated, as billboards, and even mountainsides, are painted with propaganda extolling the virtues of the young Kim.

Ri's removal comes at a time when North Korea watchers have been buzzing about possible changes in the closed-off country under Kim.

Among the signs: female workers wearing shorter skirts, and a televised concert last week with the Disney characters and an electric violinist playing the theme song from "Rocky." An all-female choir also sang a stylized version of "My Way" for an audience that included Kim and an unidentified female companion.

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