by Daniel Pinkston
Best wishes for a strong and prosperous New Year from Seoul. After several distractions that resulted in a long hiatus from the blog, we look forward to being more active this year. Even before the year of the dragon begins on 23 January 2012, events are picking up pace in North East Asia, not least with the leadership change in the DPRK, which occurred suddenly last month with Kim Jŏng-il’s death and the transfer of power to Kim Jŏng-ŭn.
Some analysts speculated that the likelihood of instability was high, or that a successful transfer of power to Kim Jŏng-ŭn would increase the likelihood of reform and opening in the DPRK. Some of this analysis seems to be based more on wishful thinking than on robust models or methodical scrutiny. We expected the succession to go smoothly, at least in the short-term to intermediate-term (years—not weeks or months). We also are very pessimistic about the prospects for significant policy reform under Kim Jŏng-ŭn. Some have speculated that he could seek reform and an opening-up of his country because he had studied abroad in Switzerland. However, we believe that even if he has such intentions (and there is no sign that he does) the internal constraints make it nearly impossible to do so.
To reform and open the DPRK would require three fundamental things: abandoning the command economy and restructuring the economic system; renouncing the state ideologies of chuch’e and sŏn’gun; and abandoning the nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile programs. These steps are necessary for delivering economic recovery, but they would require a complete rejection of the Kim Il-sŏng and Kim Jŏng-il legacies, which are the only sources of political legitimacy for Kim Jŏng-ŭn. Therefore, we expect to see little or no policy changes for the foreseeable future. Official statements from Pyongyang have been very clear—the DPRK has no intention of abandoning its “military first” orientation. Kim Jŏng-ŭn emphatically signaled this intent when his first visit of the New Year was made to the Ryu Kyŏng-su 105th Armored (Tank) Division (근위 서울 류경수 제105 땅크 사단).
Kim Chŏng-ŭn’s Visit to the Ryu Kyŏng-su 105th Armored Division
Kim’s visit to the Ryu Kyŏng-su 105th Armored Division is symbolic in many ways because of its history and role in the Korean War. Kim Jŏng-il visited the unit at least 27 times between August 1960 and December 2010. According to DPRK media, Kim Jŏng-il’s made his first visit with his father on 25 August 1960. Official state hagiography now identifies this date as the beginning of Kim Jŏng-il’s sŏn’gun (military first) politics and ideology. In January 2009 and 2010, Kim Jŏng-il’s first inspections of the New Year were to the 105th Armored Division; the 2010 visit caused quite a stir in the ROK because DPRK television broadcasted images of the base with road signs displayed as if it were in South Korea. The 2010 visit also preceded the deadly attacks against the Ch’ŏnan and Yŏnp’yŏng Island, so some are speculating, although we generally disagree, that Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s 2012 visit could be an indication of more DPRK conventional provocations against the South in the near future.
Background on the Ryu Kyŏng-su 105th Armored Division
The unit is named in honor of Ryu Kyŏng-su, a first generation anti-Japanese revolutionary who helped introduce tanks and armor into the KPA and commanded the first tank brigade. Ryu was born in Manchuria in 1915, and was active in the anti-Japanese communist movement. He went to tank school in the Soviet Army and served in a tank unit in WWII, but went back toNorth Koreaafter liberation. With his experience, he was asked to oversee the establishment of armor forces in the KPA. He began as Senior Colonel overseeing the 15th tank training regiment in 1948, then became commander of the 105th Armored Brigade in 1949.
Following the June 25, 1950 invasion of South Korea, the 105th Armored Brigade entered Ŭijŏngbu on June 27 and Seoul on June 28, then participated in significant battles at Taejŏn and Kŭmch’’ŏn. This is the division that is credited for the total annihilation of Task Force Smith, the first American military unit to make contact with the KPA at the beginning of the war. The 105th Armored Brigade was only stopped after the Inch’ŏn landing when it was cut off from all supply lines. In recognition of its accomplishments, the 105th was elevated to the level of a tank division and received honorary titles such as “Guards (근위)”and “Seoul”. Furthermore, Ryu was awarded decorations such as “Hero of the DPRK” and “Order of the National Flag First Class”. Ryu was promoted to general, but died in 1958. Upon his death the 105th Armored Division was named the “Ryu Kyŏng-su Tank Division” in his honor.
The 105th Armored Division is a division of the Korean People’s Army, 820th Armored Corps, located in Koksan, North Hwanghae Province. In addition to somewhat dated hardware, the 105th Armored Division is also well-known to be equipped with the operation of the more recently developed P’okp’ung-ho (폭풍호), or “Storm Tiger”, North Korea’s most advanced tank model, which is rumored to have capabilities close to matching those of the Russian T-90, making it a centerpiece for the KPA. In early 2010, the 105th Armored Division carried out military drills apparently aimed at preparing for attacks onSouth Korea. The Korean Central Television in P’yŏngyang ran 59 still photos of an exercise by the 105th Armored Division; four of the photos showed signs with names of South Korean cities and highways.
According to KCNA, “Kim Jŏng-il started his Sŏn’gun revolutionary leadership with his historic field guidance to Guard Seoul Ryu Kyŏng Su 105th Tank Division on 25 August 1960, with his firm will to carry forward generation after generation the chuch’e cause of sŏn’gun pioneered by the president [Kim Il-sŏng]”. In 1995, the year following the death of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jŏng-il chose to make the visit to the 105th his first official action of the New Year. Furthermore, his last reported action of 2010 was viewing an exercise by the armored division.
In sum, all signs seem to indicate that the succession is going well as planned, and there are no signs of internal disunity. Of course, that could change suddenly, but we believe that is unlikely in the short-term. Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s visit to the Ryu Kyŏng-su 105th Armored Division is another sign that we should expect no deviation from the DPRK’s “military first” policy for the near future.
I would like to thank Joseph Lenox and Alisa Modica for their research assistance.
Strong and Prosperous