By Victor Cha & Andy Lim
Kim Jong-un has had a busy start to 2016, with a nuclear test in January, a claimed hydrogen bomb test and his third overall, and a long-range missile/satellite test over the weekend added to his list of ever growing accomplishments in the past month. The timing of the latter, on the eve of the most important holiday for its only friend, China, has added to the unending litany of criticisms from the international community over his regime’s recent belligerent actions. While the United Nations Security Council remains divided over differences and unable to reach a consensus over a new resolution (35 days and counting), there continue to be new developments adding to the volatility of the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Just today, the surprising decision emerged by the South Korean government to shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and news of yet another execution of a top North Korean general.
Q1: What is the significance of the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex?
A1: The unilateral decision by President Park Geun-hye today to shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), an inter-Korean industrial park with 124 South Korean companies and around 54,000 North Korean workers that first opened in 2004, was a first for any South Korean government. Previous governments, whether conservative or liberal, have showed a general reluctance to let inter-Korean tensions affect the project, which they saw symbolic of the future potential of a unified Korea. The KIC was shut down for five months in 2013, but that was a unilateral action by the North Koreans.
That is why the strongly-worded announcement by the Ministry of Unification proved that President Park, who despite her efforts to improve inter-Korean relations via her trustpolitik policy, will not back down to North Korean belligerence when it threatened the safety of her nation. The statement today cited the suspected use of cash earned through the KIC by the North Korean government to upgrade its nuclear and missile program, instead of improving the livelihood of the North Korean people, as the final straw for shutdown. According to the ministry, North Korea has earned 560 million dollars since December 2004, and 120 million dollars last year alone from the complex. If the statement is true, Park’s actions today may be an important step for cutting off a critical stream of currency that funds Kim’s dangerous projects.
Q2: What is the news about another North Korean general execution?
A2: Unconfirmed reports also emerged today that Ri Yong-gil, chief of the Korean People’s Army General Staff, and widely believed to be number 3 on Pyongyang elite hierarchy, has been executed sometime this month on charges of “factionalism, abuse of power and corruption.” According to South Korean news reports, General Ri may have been targeted during the joint meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Committee of the Korean People’s Army (February 2 – 3), where Kim Jong-un criticized his officials for abuse of power. Ri has not been seen publicly since the middle of January, and he failed to be listed among the officials who attended the celebration for the successful missile test this Monday, February 8.
If true, Ri joins a long list of high profile purges and executions within the North Korean military, and around 70 high-level officials overall, including his controversial and deceased uncle Jang Song-thaek, who have met a similar unfortunate fate since Kim Jong-un came into power in 2012.
Dr. Victor Cha is senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @vcgiants. Mr. Andy Lim is a research assistant with the Korea Chair. This piece also appeared as a CSIS Critical Questions here.
Dr. Victor Cha is senior adviser and Korea Chair at CSIS. He is also a professor of government at Georgetown University.