North Korean leader Kim Jong-un faces no threat to his rule despite the sacking of his military chief, but also shows no sign of seeking reforms or easing confrontation, a leading think tank said yesterday.
“He could well be around for decades — and with a growing nuclear arsenal,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report entitled North Korean Succession and the Risks of Instability.
Pyongyang could even decide to test more long-range missiles or another nuclear bomb when key nations like China and the US are preoccupied with leadership changes or elections in coming months, it said.
Last week’s announcement that North Korean military chief Ri Yong-ho had been relieved of all posts, purportedly because of illness, raised some speculation about a military power struggle or of efforts by Kim to set the stage for reform.
However, the Brussels-based ICG said that despite the sudden sacking there were no signs of opposition to the country’s second dynastic succession and Kim appeared in charge in his own right.
There was also nothing to suggest that Kim, who took power after the death of his father and former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in December last year, would take measures to improve the lot of his people or reduce regional frictions.
The North has suffered acute food shortfalls since the early 1990s and severe shortages of electricity and materials cripple industry.
The ICG said the poor economy remained the regime’s greatest long-term threat, but reform would contradict the centrally planned system espoused by Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfather, undermining his own political legitimacy.
While the North was currently stable, “the system is not sustainable forever,” the ICG said.
Continued isolation and a “military first” orientation would encourage the regime to remain confrontational, the ICG said, adding that without the money to sustain a conventional arms race, it would rely increasingly on “asymmetric capabilities,” including nuclear weapons for its security.
The ICG also cautioned that eventual internal opposition to Kim Jong-un’s succession could not be ruled out.
If the armed forces become dissatisfied with the status quo, there are fears the regime could stage provocations against South Korea, as in 2010, to bolster Kim’s military credentials.