Kumsusanology, which, much like Kremlinology, one might define as the study of an entire ruling elite based on extremely flimsy evidence, is back with a vengeance. Yesterday, Politburo Standing Committee member, Politburo member, Party Central Military Commission Vice-chairman and Army Chief of Staff V. Mar Ri Yong Ho was cast into the wilderness by the assembled Politburo, for reasons that experts have spent much of today trying to analyse without giving away the fact that they don't actually know.
Among the more prominent of these commentators, in English at least, has been Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group. Wisely, he tried not to sell the farm, instead offering a modest takeaway; that Ri was purged to both circumscribe his power and as a warning to others not to go too far in their own pursuit of influence.
“A dictator has to put mechanisms in place to prevent coups and challenges to his power,” he rightly pointed out in one or, more likely, all of the pieces to which he contributed. “This will not only have been aimed at this individual but it will also serve as a signal to others.”
Clearly, Pinkston is hedging. After all, just about the only thing we can be sure of here is that removing someone from all his positions of power in one fell swoop is guaranteed to end his challenge to the leader's power. From this perspective, he isn’t teaching us much.
But in a sense that’s fair enough. After all, at the risk of repeating myself: nobody actually knows what Ri did to deserve his shock culling. At least Pinkston has the balls to sit on the fence and avoid siding with one or another of the various reasons that are in circulation. Conversely, one wonders how and according to what evidence the following conclusions were reached (courtesy of Bloomberg);
“The firing of Ri means the end of the country’s hawkish military-first policy putting the troops before any other policy objective, and possibly the beginning of governance more focused instead on improving the economy.” (Prof. Yang Moo Jin, University of North Korean Studies)
“Ri Yong Ho was most likely fired for resisting the Workers’ Party leadership, mainly on mobilizing soldiers for economic initiatives. The party is on board with Kim Jong Un’s decision to improve the economy through flagship construction projects over bolstering military might.” (Dr. Cheong Seong Chang, Sejong Institute)
Which is not to say either is wrong, of course. That's what makes Kumsusanology so much fun, you see. There are no answers. Not today, at least.