Go to contents

N.K. Military Reasserts Power in Inter-Korean Ties

Posted August. 05, 2008 04:03,   


The shooting death of a South Korean tourist at North Korea’s Mount Geumgang last month was devised by the North’s military from beginning to end.

A North Korean soldier shot dead 53-year-old Park Wang-ja July 11. The spokesman of the North Korean military unit at Mount Geumgang blamed Park and South Korea for the incident Sunday.

The North’s military this year has begun a head-on confrontation with South Korea. A combination of political and economic internal factors based on Pyongyang’s “military first” ideology apparently forced North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to put his army at the forefront of dealing with South Korea.

The North Korean military, however, can ill afford to allow the situation to spiral out of control since it has a vested interest in the tourism project.

▽Kim Jong Il’s military

The strong response toward Seoul was led by Pyongyang’s military because the North gives top priority to its armed forces.

Kim regularly visits troops to elicit loyalty, and this year has been no exception. The reclusive leader conducted on-site visits 49 times in the first half of the year, visiting troops 25 times. Since April, when a policy of strong response toward the South was set, he has made 22 visits to the frontlines.

Since the end of last year, the North Korean leader has been flanked the most by Kim Ki Nam, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, followed by generals Ri Myong Soo and Hyon Chol Hae; Kim Jong Gak, first vice director of the North Korean army’s general political department; and Kim Kyok Sik, chief of the general staff of the North Korean People`s Army.

▽ Military leads politics and economy

The North Korean military is almost the only organization that has functioned properly despite the country’s economic crisis. As a result, Kim Jong Il could use his military’s might to influence the more conservative South Korean government.

Internal political changes in the North that began to appear last year are other factors to be considered.

The North Korean military has been against the friendly atmosphere brought on by last year’s inter-Korean summit declaration. This year’s aggressive stance on South Korea and the shooting are examples of the North’s shift toward hawkishness.

Choe Sung Chol, vice unification director of the North Korean Workers’ Party, and Senior Cabinet Councilor Kwon Ho Ung, who played a critical role in improving inter-Korean relations last year, stepped down with the launch of the Lee Myung-bak administration in South Korea.

The military could also take over management of the tourism project.

▽ Money pipeline hard to give up

A former North Korean official who fled to the South several years ago said, “The dollars paid to the North for the Mount Geumgang tourism project was mostly spent by the military. If the project stops, the military will be affected most.”

Hyundai Asan, the South Korean organizer of tourism in North Korea, has paid Pyongyang 48.6 million U.S. dollars through the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee between 1998 and June this year.

The committee is an umbrella organization under the North’s Workers’ Party and the dollars earned are used for Kim Jong Il’s personal use.

The former North Korean official said Kim from the beginning ordered the military to use the money from the tourism project. Okryugwan, the restaurant in the resort, and a North Korean circus team are run by Baekho Trading Co., a firm belonging to the North Korean military.

The North Korean military criticized Seoul in a statement Sunday but stopped short of mentioning a permanent suspension of tours to Mount Geumgang. Experts say this is because the military cannot abandon its huge money pipeline.

kyle@donga.com abc@donga.com