March 7, 2005


Puzzle of the vanished 'parliament': North Korea abruptly canceled its one-day Supreme People's Assembly, the rubber-stamp parliament in which inscrutable economic reports are delivered. The leadership may be divided over four huge challenges - the economy, succession, nukes, and grassroots discontent. (Aidan Foster-Carter, 3/07/05, Asia Times)

Another day, another Pyongyang puzzle. Last Friday, North Korea abruptly canceled the regular annual session of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), its nominal parliament, just five days before it was scheduled to open on March 9, this Wednesday.

According to the SPA Presidium - a standing committee that does the SPA's job when the full parliament is not in session, ie 99% of the time - the third session of the 11th SPA was postponed "at the requests made by deputies to the SPA in all domains of the socialist construction". But it insisted that this is only a postponement, not a cancellation: "The date of the session will be set and announced publicly," the Presidium statement said. [...]

[T]he Supreme People's Assembly is a shell and a parody. Supreme? Nope, just a rubber stamp. People's? Hardly: it's a top-down tool of the ruling party and its leader. And now, it doesn't even assemble! [...]

As widely reported, there are many signs that Pyongyang's hidden politics are heating up. Everyone agrees that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has purged his brother-in-law and former right-hand man, Jang Song-taek. This could be over policy - Jang is said to oppose economic reform - or it could be over the succession issue. One version is that Jang adopted a bastard son of Kim Il-sung, who is now a rival for dauphin with Kim Jong-il's three known sons. The eldest of these, Kim Jong-nam - once nabbed sneaking into Japan on a fake passport - is said to have been the target of a murder attempt in Vienna last November. A palace shootout is also rumored.

Add in the pressure on nukes from Washington et al, with Pyongyang visibly squirming and sending out contradictory hints. Add, too, the first video evidence of dissident groups inside North Korea - as it finally sinks in that the real cause of their misery is not the evil imperialists, but the crass policy choices of self-styled Great Leaders. The usual suspects in Seoul have rubbished this too, but surely the only question is: What took them so long?

In sum, it is highly plausible that North Korea's leadership, facing four huge challenges - the economy, the succession, the nuclear issue, the grassroots - is split. Some want to do a Gaddafi: give up the nasties, pocket the loot. Others would fight to the death. Some see reform as saving their system, others as dooming it. High stakes, and not an easy choice.

And if they're divided, is it safe to convene the Supreme People's Assembly as usual?

Step up the military, rhetorical, and economic pressure right now and you could poke right through that paper facade.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 7, 2005 7:33 AM
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