The three years of Kim Jong-un's reign in North Korea have been marked by a number of unusual features and strange moves.
One can mention, for instance, the great attention paid to building the Masikryeong Ski Resort and other leisure facilities in a country where getting one's daily rice is a major problem for the vast majority of the population. The rather bizarre visits of Denis Rodman to the country are also worthy of mention, as is the short-lived endorsement of popular Americana by Moranbong band.
One of the penchants of the current Kim regime is promoting and demoting high-ranking military commanders. In March, North Korea watchers noticed that Pak Jong-chon, deputy chairman of North Korea's General Staff, began to appear in public sporting the one-star epaulets of a "major general." The same man had two stars of a "lieutenant general" back in 2013, and in 2014, for a brief time, he was a three-star "colonel general." So within the space of two years, Pak was first promoted and then lost two ranks, all without losing his high-level job.
Such an occurrence is not all that surprising: we have seen the same things play out with other prominent North Korean military commanders. It seems that rollercoaster-style promotion and demotion is a favourite feature of Kim Jong-un's personnel management style.
Perhaps the most remarkable case is Hyon Yong-chul, currently North Korea's Minister of the Armed Forces, who spent the last four years running a virtual roller-coaster. In 2010, he was a four-star general, in July 2012 he became a "vice-marshal" (a peculiar North Korean military rank above four-star general), only to be soon demoted to a four-star general again. In 2013 he went further down, becoming a three-star general, but soon recovered, and was promoted to a four-star general once again. What this meant is that General Hyon sported four stars epaulets anew on three separate occasions ― twice because of promotion, and once because of demotion.
Another example is the fate of his former colleague Chang Jong-nam, the former Minister of the Armed Forces. Chang was a four-star general when appointed, but lost a star soon after while still keeping his job. Kim Yong-chol, the head of the military intelligence, was another known roller-coaster rider.
This is by no means the full list of known cases of such a strange practice. Though strange it is indeed: in many countries, some high ranking officers will find themselves demoted as a punishment for their inability to handle their duties properly. But in nearly all cases, such a demotion coincides with a loss of official position as well. In Kim Jong-un's North Korea, however, a demoted officer can maintain his high position in the chain of command, in spite of losing a star or two.
The same is also the case with civilian officials, though the absence of formal ranks makes keeping track of such things more difficult. For instance, around the time that Pak Jong-chon lost two stars, it became known that another influential North Korean civilian politician had been formally demoted as well.
We are talking here about none other than Choe Ryong-hae, secretary of the ruling Korean Workers' Party, who had been Kim Jong-un's second-in-command. On March 8, from a brief reference within an official report, it became known that he was no longer a member of the Standing Committee of the Party Politburo and was now a just a humble member of the same Politburo. A significant demotion indeed, at least on paper, but from what is known about the seemingly unfortunate Choe, the demotion has actually had little impact on Choe's political influence.
What does this tell us about North Korea under Kim Jong-un? First of all, it confirms what has been known for years: the young Supreme Leader can sometimes be quite eccentric and mercurial in his policy making and personnel management.
However, such frequent changes can also be construed as proof of the actual power that Kim enjoys over his de facto kingdom. Generals love their stars and they are not usually likely to take such demotions easily. It is not incidental that, in most cases, a dictator usually prefers to send a demoted general into safe retirement. Otherwise, the pride of a career officer might push him in the wrong political direction.
This seemingly does not worry the young Kim. Indeed, the young political leader believes that he can treat his generals and top civilian officials in a way that he considers to be suitable and has little or no fear of discontent or retribution.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.