Training North Korea’s Supreme Leader

By Robert Collins 


How does one train a “supreme leader”—especially a young and inexperienced one—on how to handle crisis when any mention of his mistakes may lead to the notorious termination of the trainer by anti-aircraft gun? Difficult question, to be sure, but an even more difficult process. After all, North Korea had never gone to any external crisis of this depth under the short reign of Kim Jong-un, the North’s hereditary First Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, Chairman of the National Defense Commission, and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. Now it has.

During the past two weeks, the two Koreas have once again put on shows of military force in responses and counter-responses to the North’s planting of landmines in the Demilitarized Zone that maimed two young South Korean soldiers. The South’s response was to resume loudspeaker broadcasts across the DMZ, designed to attack and undermine the legitimacy of the regime. Essentially, these types of South Korean propaganda targeting the North’s leadership drive that same leadership up the proverbial wall. A series of kinetic responses and counter-responses elevated a provocation into a crisis requiring raises in military alerts, shows of great force on both sides and, finally, face-to-face negotiations at Panmunjom in the DMZ.

So how much “training the trainer” went into planning for these actions? Driven by fear for their lives, North Korea’s generals and admirals must couch their recommendations on courses of action within the cocoon of absolute and bellicose loyalty to the supreme leader. Most likely, they must parse their requests and answers in strategy deliberations in such a manner that makes any suggestion by Kim Jong-un appear to be sheer tactical brilliance reminiscent of Sun Tzu, Napoleon, or, even better for North Koreans, of the much celebrated greatness of the supreme leader’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

This loyalty demanded by the North’s incessantly inculcated ideology has definitively negative by-products that have the world’s attention—impetuous purges and executions of senior leaders, human rights denial, political prison camps; imprisoning up to 120,000 inmates; and resource de-prioritization for any individual North Korean perceived by the regime as not faithfully serving the interests of the supreme leader.  

When North Korea and South Korea held talks at Panmunjom beginning on August 22 to defuse this most recent crisis, it was a meeting of two sides whose characteristics are dramatically different. Not only are the two political systems antithetical, but their social and ideological values are antithetical as well. The backgrounds of the four South and North Korean participating delegates are polar opposites, both politically and militarily. Their backgrounds clearly indicate that the South is at the negotiating table because it values the safety of its citizens and the North is at the talks because it values the “face,” i.e. the reputation of its supreme leader over everything else.

How so? The intent and values of the South are self-evident. Democratic societies look to preservation and safety of their nation-state above all else, as essential in safeguarding the human security of their citizens. The presence of President Park’s National Security Adviser, Kim Kwan-jin, and her Minister of Unification, Hong Yong-pyo, demonstrates that resolving this crisis focused on the security of the South. Kim Kwan-jin is a lifelong military man who has commanded army units from the company-level up through field army and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed by a stint as the Minister of National Defense. Hong Yong-pyo serves as the leader of the government agency dedicated to finding peaceful means of unification. However, on the North’s side, there are polar opposites. The one man in the group who wore a military uniform with a military rank of vice-marshal (5-star) was the North’s Hwang Byong-so. Oddly enough, he is not truly a military man. He is a lifelong political commissar who has worked for the Korean Workers’ Party his whole life. He has never commanded a battalion, a regiment, a division, a corps, or a field army… ever. His job has always been to monitor North Korea’s military officers to ensure their loyalty to the supreme leader and the party as well as their compliance with all aspects of North Korean ideology. Hwang’s function has always been to ensure that those officers that supposedly fail to meet that standard are purged from the military ranks. In the first three and a half years of his rule, Kim Jong-un has gone through four Chiefs of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army and six Ministers of People’s Armed Forces. The other North Korean negotiator, Kim Yang-gon, heads the party’s United Front Department, tasked to foment South Korean social and political instability by employing a “toolkit,” including espionage, sabotage, propaganda and even inter-Korean dialogue.  

The final agreement by the four to end the crisis was a statement of regret (the same language Kim Il-sung used after the DMZ axe murders in 1976) from the North concerning the landmine incident and the end of the South’s propaganda broadcasts across the DMZ. As the profiles of the four negotiators indicate, while South Korea’s concern was the security of its soldiers, North Korea’s concern was the security and reputation of its supreme leader.  

In the long run, training the supreme leader may have created a larger mutated political logic in the mind of the Supreme Commander of 1.2 million soldiers armed with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Future trainers—at least those who survive the purges—will deal with a supreme leader who thinks he now knows it all. Decision-making within the North’s national security structure will likely lose some operational and strategic agility due to his hubris. To emphasize this, Kim Jong-un will likely demonstrate his leadership through internal propaganda claims of having made the Republic of Korea-United States alliance “stand down.”  

One of the outcomes of this crisis is that it will work toward consolidating Kim Jong-un’s power, at least in the young leader’s mind. Surely, it is still possible for an individual or a group of senior officials to fall on their sword after using it on the young, impetuous leader. But for the time being, the outcome of the crisis also enables the continued suppression of the North Korean people, including denial of the most basic of human rights and political prison camp internment of those perceived as disloyal. Another outcome of the crisis is the continued threat to the security of 51 million South Korean citizens, not to mention the threat of nuclear war.

The North’s military trainers may have made themselves look good in the eyes of the supreme leader for now, but the next time he may be the one “training the trainers” on further threats to the people of both North and South Korea.

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