SEOUL, Dec 14 (Reuters) - When North Korea’s Kim Jong-un commemorates a year of his rule next week, he will be able to declare he has fulfilled the country’s long-held dream of becoming a “space power”.
Sharing the limelight with the 29-year old will be three civilians who have grown stronger in the past year and have helped Kim exert control over the country’s powerful military, which may be an advantage in edging the country closer to an attempt to reopen dialogue with the United States.
Wednesday’s successful rocket launch, in which North Korea put a satellite in space for the first time, may have helped cement the position of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek and Choe Ryong-hae, the military’s top political strategist, as well as Ju Kyu-chang, the 84-year-old head of the country’s missile and nuclear programme.
“The rocket launch is a boost politically to the standing of Jang Song-thaek and Choe Ryong-hae, who have been around Kim Jong-un,” said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses, a government-affiliated think tank in South Korea.
While Washington has condemned the rocket launch and called for tougher sanctions on North Korea it was, as recently as February, willing to offer food aid to Pyongyang. At that time it was just over a year since the North shelled a South Korean island, killing civilians, and sank a South Korean warship.
The rise of Jang and Chae especially, once ridiculed as “fake” military men by army veterans, together with the country’s aging chief missile bureaucrat, could also mean the renegade state will try its hand at using what is now stronger leverage in negotiations to extract aid and concessions.
Jang is the brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il and was the chief promoter of his son Kim Jong-un when the elder Kim died on Dec. 17 last year. Jang has further increased his prominence in recent weeks with high-level public appearances, at times in unprecedented proximity to the leader of a country where appearance and formality are rigidly controlled.
Jang accompanied Kim to the rocket command centre to watch the successful launch on Wednesday, the North’s state news agency KCNA said.
He is officially a vice chairman of the ruling National Defence Commission and an army general in name only, but is widely believed to be the North’s second-in-command in reality.
Jang is considered a pragmatist who is willing to engage both allies and enemies abroad, but also one who understands the challenge of cementing the position of the young and relatively untested grandson of the state’s founder.
Baek noted that comments by the North’s Foreign Ministry, customarily the channel used by the leadership to wage war of words with the United States, had been tempered recently, indicating Pyongyang may seek a way back into negotiations.
“The North may start to send active indications to the United States and China that it is wiling to talk, even to go back to the six-party talks, and to say that its pledge for a missile test moratorium still stands,” Baek said.
The six-party talks are aimed at halting North Korea’s nuclear programme and involve the North, the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. They have been held since 2003 but have stalled since 2008.
Choe is another Workers’ Party faithful now donning army uniform. He is head of the General Political Department of the North’s 1.2-million strong Army, and is seen as the other major beneficiary of this week’s rocket launch.
Jang and Choe are anomalies in a country that claims its roots in the armed struggle against Japan, in that they have not risen through the army’s ranks but have received military titles that are said to be a source of ridicule among their opponents.
“Choe and Jang will benefit from the launch because they are the ones who will have undermined the military’s influence and strengthened the party’s status,” said Moon Hong-sik of South Korea’s Institute for National Security Strategy, a government-linked thinktank.
The surprise success of Wednesday’s launch after a failure in April will be credited to Jang and Choe while Kim will boost his credibility as a leader who gets the job done, said Suh Choo-suk, who was chief national security advisor to former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.
“I think Kim Jong-un’s overall control is already solid. His control will be even stronger through the rocket launch.”
The technical aspects of the North’s longstanding missile programme and possibly its nuclear project are led by a quiet and elderly engineer Ju Kyu-chang, another civilian in army garb.
Ju has been around since the North first tested its long-range missile technology in the summer of 1998 and is still believed to be in charge of the day-to-day running of the project to develop missiles and possibly nuclear weapons.
Recognition appears to have come relatively late in life for the silver haired technocrat Ju, who is believed to have trained as a metal alloy specialist, as he started to appear in public with the country’s top leader only when he turned 70.
Officially, Ju is the head of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea’s oddly named Machine-Building Industry Department. He was also named to the National Defence Commision, the country’s top military body, after the North’s 2009 long-range missile test.
Ju is among the North’s most heavily sanctioned individuals, personally named in several government blacklists.
“His rise coincided with the escalation of pace in the North’s missile and nuclear programmes,” said an expert with a South Korean state-run think tank who did not want to be named.
“It could very well have been as a reward for his contribution.”