North Korea's officials KCNA news agency reported Monday that army chief Ri Yong-ho, a top military chief, has been removed from all posts due to "illness," according to a decision made during a meeting on Sunday by the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Worker's Party of Korea. Some Western media interpreted this as a domestic struggle between reformers and conservatives in Pyongyang. This is an overly simple interpretation. Howsoever, regular major change of personnel will be a political test for Kim Jong-un as a national leader.
Since Kim assumed the top leadership position, many changes have taken place in North Korea, inferred from some details such as costumes and performances. But it's too early to tell who are the reformers or who are the conservatives judging from those changes. However, Ri's removal could be within expectations. His disappearance could make Pyongyang's policies more clear and steady.
The background of this switch deserves attention. Since the beginning of this year, North Korea's policies have been inconsistent.
For instance, Pyongyang resumed talks with the US in late February and reached a favorable agreement, according to which, North Korea would stop nuclear and missile tests while the US would provide food assistance. However, North Korea suddenly announced its satellite launch in March. It firmly struck to the decision despite of the US envoy's mediation. Although the launch ended in failure, it led to the cancellation of the agreement between Pyongyang and the US.
It seems that some forces in North Korea don't want to see an improving relationship with the US. They act against any possibility of reform by promoting nuclear test and continuing tough domestic and foreign policies.
There are similar actions. The Choson Sinbo reported in April that Pyongyang would conduct a third nuclear test. Information agencies of countries like the US, Japan, South Korea and Russia all observed some traces. However, in mid-May, North Korea declared it didn't have a nuclear plan. This suggests that North Korea is divided as to whether nuclear tests should be continued.
The policy inconsistency is also reflected in Pyongyang's policies toward South Korea. North Korea declared in late April it would conduct a special operation against South Korea. The general staff of the Korean People's Army, led by Ri, issued an ultimatum against South Korea on June 4, demanding South Korea either acknowledge the North's case or face a "sacred war" by North Korea. But so far, it hasn't followed up with actual actions.
Those contradictions are not groundless. They suggest that different propositions or policy reluctance are held by North Korea's leadership on major events. We can see Ri's removal against this background.
North Korea will also have major personnel changes in the future. If the changes could be conducted steadily, they will show the political maturity of Kim. It is a process for Kim to consolidate power, in which his talent and qualifications to govern the country could be fully demonstrated.
From the perspectives of North Korea's interests and its people's expectations, North Korean leaders should make proper changes to its fundamental policies based on the shifting internal and external environments. These are the demands of the North Korean public as well as a must-do for Pyongyang if the country wants to move out of the current difficult situation. It can also help build the authority of the leaders.
North Korea will shift its focus to economic construction in the future, putting more resources and investments on economic development. The leadership will also pay more attention to improving people's lives. This is the general trend for North Korean development.
It is foreseeable that the political situation in Pyongyang will become steadier after a change of personnel and policy adjustments, and the confrontation between North Korea and the international community will be alleviated. The fundamental trend of North Korea is steady development.
The author is a specialist in Korean issues and a professor at the International Strategic Research Bureau at the Party School of the Central Committee of CPC. firstname.lastname@example.org