[News analysis] Kim Jong-un holds expanded meeting with WPK Central Military Commission

Posted on : 2019-12-23 17:47 KST Modified on : 2019-12-23 18:07 KST
Trump discusses N. Korea issue during phone call with Xi Jinping
An image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presiding over an expanded meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Military Commission in Pyongyang released by the Korean Central News Agency on Dec. 22. (Yonhap News)
An image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presiding over an expanded meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Military Commission in Pyongyang released by the Korean Central News Agency on Dec. 22. (Yonhap News)

As Pyongyang’s “end-of-the-year” deadline draws closer, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sat down with key members of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and the military during an expanded meeting of the WPK Central Military Commission, where they discussed developing the country’s self-defense capabilities. US President Donald Trump brought up the North Korean issue during a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping as the US keeps an eye on what “Christmas present” North Korea may bring.

The plenary session of the WPK Central Committee, at which North Korea seems likely to announce its “new path,” could be held as early as this week, and South Korea will be holding separate bilateral summits with China and Japan and a trilateral summit with both countries in China on Dec. 23-24. This week is likely to be a watershed point in affairs on the Korean Peninsula.

During the 3rd expanded session of the 7th WPK Central Military Commission, with Kim Jong-un presiding, North Korea decided on measures to strengthen the country’s “total military force” during a discussion of topics including military policy, military reorganization, and personnel appointments, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central New Agency (KCNA) reported on Dec. 22.

WPK Central Military Commission’s convening emphasizes military resolve in relation to “new path”

The fact that the commission’s expanded meeting was held prior to the “important decision” that’s expected in the upcoming plenary session of the WPK Central Committee has led some analysts to conclude that military matters could constitute a major plank of the new strategic line that will be announced in the plenary session. According to this analysis, North Korea convened the WPK Central Military Commission — rather than the Politburo, which typically meets before an important plenary session — to emphasize military resolve in relation to the “new path.”

North Korea has taken previous plenary sessions as opportunities to finalize important strategic lines. The decision to pursue a “two-track” line of building the economy and a nuclear arsenal, in 2013; to place a moratorium on nuclear weapon and missile testing, in 2018; and to focus all efforts on building a socialist economy, also in 2018, were all made at plenary sessions.

N. Korea unlikely to reverse two-track policy line

The key question, according to experts who have analyzed the content of the expanded meeting, is whether the upcoming plenary session will lead to the reversal of North Korea’s moratorium on nuclear weapon and missile testing. Hong Min, director of the North Korea research office at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), regards such a reversal as unlikely.

“If North Korea had intended to revert to its ‘two-track’ line of nuclear and economic development, it would have used language that hints at a stronger nuclear arsenal, but instead it mentioned phrases about its ‘total military force’ and its ‘self-defense’ capabilities. The ‘new path’ itself will begin at a relatively modest level,” Hong predicted.

“North Korea would be hesitant to revive its ‘two-track’ nuclear and economic development line, since it declared that line already accomplished its objective [in the 3rd plenary session of the 7th WPK Central Committee in 2018] when it opted for focusing all its efforts on the economy,” said Kim In-tae, head of research at the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), while predicting that the North Korean announcement would still contain a “tough military line.”

“This could be part of a North Korean attempt to reform its national defense. There’s probably some connection to the four types of new weapons that the North has test launched this year,” said Kim Dong-yeop, a professor at Kyungnam University. Since May, North Korea has tested a variety of new strategic weapons, including the KN-23, regarded as a North Korean version of the Iskander missile; a “super large multiple rocket launcher”; a new tactical surface-to-surface ballistic missile; and a submarine-launched ballistic missile. By upgrading these assets, Kim predicts, Pyongyang will seek to bolster its “self-defense capabilities.”

The matters dealt with during this meeting of the military commission included reorganizing units, recalling some commission members and filling vacancies, and dismissing and appointing leaders of military organizations. An analysis of photographs of the meeting suggests that changes in the commission boost the status of the military by increasing the representation of the military brass and reducing the contingent from the WKP and the cabinet.

Hong Min, at KINU, pointed out that “another major question is whether the status of the Strategic Rocket Forces [the body in charge of nuclear weapons] under the General Staff Department was altered or kept the same.” A change in status could be directly linked to North Korea’s nuclear policy.

The meeting reconfirmed “the leadership of the party over the country’s total military force” while emphasizing both the military’s “defense of the country” and the “construction of socialism.” “This reconfirmed that the party is strengthening its leadership over the army and that the army has a role to play in building up the economy,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

US also emphasizing its own military readiness

While urging North Korea to return to the negotiating table, the US has also been emphasizing its own military readiness, indicating that it’s prepared for all contingencies. In a tweet on Dec. 20 in which Trump described a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he said the two had “also talked about North Korea, where we are working with China.” Trump used the tweet to publicly emphasize that he and Xi had discussed North Korea’s attempt to pressure US with its “end-of-the-year deadline” and that the two countries were in consultation about responding to the North. Trump and Xi appear to have discussed China’s role in stopping North Korea from raising tensions and ways to coordinate their response going forward. Trump also discussed responding to North Korea in a phone call with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Dec. 21.

Moon discusses Korean Peninsula tensions during summit with Xi in Beijing

During a summit with Xi in Beijing on the morning of Dec. 23, South Korean President Moon Jae-discussed ways for the two countries to cooperate on preventing tensions from rising on the Korean Peninsula.

“The recent situations, in which dialogue between North Korea and the United States has been suspended and tensions on the Korean Peninsula are being heightened, are not beneficial to both of our countries and North Korea," Moon said ahead of the Beijing summit.

While speaking about his “two functions” in relation to North Korea during a press conference on Dec. 20, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said, “One is to ensure that we are in a high state of readiness, prepared [. . .] to fight and win tonight, if need be.” The second function, the secretary said, is “to enable [. . .] our diplomats.”

On Dec. 17, Charles Brown, commander of US Pacific Air Forces, said that he expects North Korea’s “Christmas present” will be a long-range ballistic missile, though he’s unsure of whether the test would occur on Christmas Eve, Christmas, or New Year’s Day.

The US continues to watch for indications of a North Korean projectile launch, flying reconnaissance planes in the skies above the Korean Peninsula. Aircraft Spots, a private-sector aircraft tracking website, said on Dec. 22 that Rivet Joint (RC-135W), a reconnaissance aircraft with the US Air Force, flew above the Korean Peninsula at a height of 31,000 feet (9,448.8m) over the weekend.

By Noh Ji-won, staff reporter, and Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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