Kim Jong-un's mystery purge explained: reform is on its way

Jul 20, 2012
Ben Riley-Smith

North Korean dictator apparently sacked military bigwig so he can implement free-market economic reform


WHEN HE inherited the leadership of North Korea, Kim Jong-un was known as "the Great Successor". Now, as new information emerges about the reason behind his latest political maneuvering, another epithet may be more suitable: The Great Reformer.
Earlier this week it was reported that Kim Jong-un has stripped one of the most powerful men in North Korea, Ri Young-ho, of all his positions. As a member of the five-strong Politburo standing committee and a leading member of the military, his sudden departure, officially put down to illness by the country's state-controlled media, prompted wild speculation in the Western press.
Was Kim Jong-un knocking out potential rivals in a bid to assume more personal power? Would a Stalinist purge of the top brass soon follow?
Well, not exactly, according to a Reuters source in the North Korean government. The real reason is that Ri was an opponent to the major free-market economic reforms that Kim is trying to implement to kickstart the Hermit State's moribund economy.
The Guardian reports that Ri was one of the regime's most enthusiastic champions of the "songun" military-first economic policy pioneered by Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il, who died last December. The policy has been blamed for the mishandling of the economy and the crippling famine in the 1990s.
The decision to sack Ri from all his posts is, according to the paper, the "strongest sign yet" that Kim is "determined to implement long-overdue reforms to save the economy and prevent the regime imploding".
You only need to look at the endless displays of military might at every state occasion, or the honorific titles continually bestowed on Kim Jong-un, to appreciate how influential the military is in North Korea. Attempting to wrest control of the economy from a group of people who control the 1.2m-strong army suggests Kim is serious about reform.
"In the past, the cabinet was empty with no say in the economy," the source told Reuters. "The military controlled the economy, but that will now change."   
Reports suggest that Kim Jong-un has formed a group at the top of his party to see how he can implement Chinese-style reforms in areas including agriculture. His hope, according to analysts, is that North Korea can attain the kind of speedy economic growth achieved by China in recent years.

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