North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

Is Hwang Plot Related to Succession?

Supposed photograph of Kim Jong-un in 1998, around age 14

Two reports in the South Korean press suggest the recently foiled plot to assassinate high-level NK defector Hwang Jang Yop is related to the hereditary succession of Kim Jong Un.  Dong-a Ilbo interviewed what it described as “a South Korean official knowledgeable about North Korea,” who believes that KJU ordered the assassination plot.

― Why do you believe Kim Jong Un ordered the assassination attempt?

Major issues of the North’s intelligence unit need approval from Kim Jong Un. Attention is also being paid to the unit’s leader Kim Yong Chol. The order to assassinate Hwang is beyond Kim Yong Chol’s authority, however. The intelligence unit was created in February last year when the maneuver agency of the Workers’ Party in charge of spy activities and the 35th agency in charge of overseas maneuvers were integrated with the spy agency of the People`s Armed Forces Ministry. It is crystal clear that Kim Yong Chol, who was recently promoted to lieutenant general, cannot control the maneuver agency or the 35th agency that had been led by Oh Kuk Ryol, who is two ranks higher than Kim Yong Chol. Still, Kim Yong Chol cannot intervene in the works of the 35th agency and the maneuver agency at all. He also has limited authority only.

― How can Kim Jong Un dominate the intelligence unit?

Kim Jong Un has struggled to gain control of overseas intelligence partly because he had lived abroad for a long time. In 2007, he ordered the spy agency of the People’s Armed Forces Ministry to form an overseas intelligence unit, but it was unsuccessful since it cannot be established overnight. In February last year, he finally integrated the maneuver agency and the 35th agency into the spy agency, and promoted the agency into the intelligence unit. He then got a hold over the unit. The intelligence unit has powerful authority. Kim Jong Un was able to seize control of an organization in charge of overseas intelligence and maneuvering thanks to approval from his father and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Notably, Kim Jong Un took over the overseas intelligence unit before gaining control of the People’s Security Ministry and police.

Kim Ji-hyun, writing in Korea Herald, focuses on possible motives for a man in his late 20’s plotting to assassinate a man in his late 80’s:

“The North obviously has concerns about a smooth transition, and wants to eliminate anything that may be an obstacle,” said professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies here.

Recent reports showed Hwang to have been quite vocal in his criticism towards North Korea, including the planned transition of power from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to his youngest son Kim Jong-eun.

During visits to Tokyo and Washington earlier this month and in March, the former secretary was skeptical of the junior Kim’s governing abilities.

He also denounced Kim Jong-il’s dictatorship and accused him of starving 3 million of his people to death. The North has since last year been showing signs of an acute economic recession exacerbated by a United Nations’ resolution outlining stringent sanctions against the reclusive state for its second nuclear test.

So, perhaps KJU is making his bones in the country’s operations against the ROK.  If, as is widely reported, the DPRK attacked the Cheonan, might this also be another act of KJU boosting his resume?  Aidan Foster-Carter writes of the possibility in Asia Times:

In a new twist, since late January the KPA have been firing volleys of artillery shells into these seas – albeit with due notice to shipping, and on their own side of the NLL. The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) fired back at first, but then decided this was business as usual, Pyongyang-style.

Sinking the Cheonan, by contrast, is very much not business as usual. That would be a sharp, if still carefully calculated and calibrated, escalation of tensions by Kim Jong-il – or whoever could give such an order. Might it be his hot-headed number three son Kim Jong-eun, whose opaque succession was reportedly put on hold last year because the headstrong lad, whose mettle in general pleases his dad, went too far and started meddling in military matters?

Meanwhile, in an interview with MBC TV Dr. Karin Janz stated that the country celebrated Kim Jong Un’s birthday on 8 January.  Dr. Janz recently retired as the NK country director of a German NGO and spent the last five years in Pyongyang.  She told MBC, “Kim Cho’ng-u’n’s birthday was celebrated in January.  They said they had to. . .they left the office at two o’clock and said they had to go to the celebration.”

An affiliate of 38 North