What's Really Going On In North Korea?

Several developments of late suggest that something unusual is taking place in North Korea, but as yet, there is no firm evidence of a coup.

Firstly, the country's supreme leader Kim Jong Un has not appeared since September 3, and he skipped a once-or-twice-yearly session of the Supreme People's Assembly on September 25. Although Kim's father Kim Jong Il was frequently out of sight for weeks at a time, the younger Kim is much more at ease in public, making his present invisibility somewhat unusual. Also highly unusual was a recent reference in state media to Kim Jong Un suffering 'discomfort' – official media typically never comments on the health of the supreme leader. Amidst all this, there has been speculation that Kim is suffering from gout and/or ankle injuries. Footage from July showing Kim limping would appear to confirm some form of walking problem. The next key date to watch is October 10, which is the 69th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party. If Kim fails to appear at this time, or remains out of the public eye for an extended period, then speculation about a power vacuum would rise sharply.

Secondly, a high-level delegation consisting of some of the most influential officials in North Korea made a surprise visit to the South on October 4, to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games. The delegation was led by Hwang Pyong So, the vice-chairman of the North's National Defence Commission and political director of its military. Hwang has enjoyed a meteoric rise since early 2014, and is generally regarded by outside observers as the country's de facto number two figure. The delegation travelled aboard an aircraft previously used by Kim Jong Un, and was visibly accompanied by his elite bodyguards. The whole episode had the semblance of a quasi-state visit. With Kim out of sight, some might conclude that he has been sidelined, and a powerful group is now making a new overture towards the South after a long period of stagnation in North-South relations. And yet within days, North and South Korean naval vessels briefly exchanged gunfire in the disputed West Sea region. This implies that Pyongyang was either insincere about improving relations, or that coordination within the North's military is poor, or that hardliners are seeking to scupper rapprochement initiatives by relative 'moderates'. All of these possibilities are ominous.

Thirdly, there have been reports recently that Pyongyang is under 'lockdown', and that Kim Jong Un's 27-year old younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, who is effectively his gatekeeper, is currently running North Korea. Naturally, these developments are impossible to verify.

No Evidence Of Coup, But Definitely A Power Struggle

Thus far, there is insufficient evidence that Kim Jong Un has been sidelined, or even secretly deposed. The latter theory has been advocated by New Focus International, a website run by exiled North Koreans, which stated that the execution of Kim's powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek for corruption and treason last December represented a silent coup by the ruling Workers' Party's Organization and Guidance Department (OGD). Incidentally, Hwang Pyong So built his career in the OGD.

Going against the notion that there is severe instability at this time is the argument that Hwang and other high-level Northern officials would not have visited the South even for a day trip, if upheaval in Pyongyang was afoot.

Nevertheless, we retain our overall view that North Korea is in the grip of an ongoing power struggle between officials around Kim Jong Un. The first real sign of disharmony emerged in July 2012, when Ri Yong Ho, the powerful army chief, was suddenly dismissed. The position of chief of the general staff has changed hands three times, and that of defence minister four times since early 2012, which is unusually high given that most previous incumbents from the pre-Kim Jong Un era held those offices for a decade at a time. The high turnover of top command posts suggests that Kim has had difficulty controlling the powerful military.

Overall, we retain our view that a power struggle will end up destabilising the regime, potentially bringing it down faster than most people expect.

This has enormous implications for security in North East Asia, regional geopolitics, and South Korea's long-term future.