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Kim needs army’s support

Power politics within N. Korea changing, as Pyongyang shuffles top military leaders

It has been a roller-coaster ride for anyone following plans for a June 12 summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Since the start of the year, analysts have been obsessed with whether Mr Kim's diplomatic efforts are sincere.

We can look inside the North Korean society for clues.

Reports that Pyongyang has shuffled top military leaders before the Singapore summit gives hints about possible power politics within North Korea.

The military's support is essential to any plans for even minimal denuclearisation or significant efforts at warming up relations with Seoul, Washington, Beijing and possibly Tokyo.

The April 27 meeting between Mr Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae In offered evidence of support from the highest ranks of the military for Mr Kim's diplomatic overtures.

Three of the nine members of the North Korean delegation not related to Mr Kim by blood were the top brass: General Pak Yong Sik, Minister of the People's Armed Forces; General Ri Myong Su, chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army; and General Kim Yong Chol, the former spy chief.

The inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007 did not include military officials in the formal list of North Korean delegates.

In April, generals wore their uniforms, adorned with medals and ribbons. For me, the most surprising image was the military salute generals Ri and Pak - who are now reported to have lost their jobs - gave Mr Moon.

But buy-in at the top should not be equated with the military and nuclear establishment's support from the bottom up.

A 2016 report commissioned by the South Korean Ministry of Unification noted that the North Korean military might seek a "military-centric government" or intervene to reshape the country's struggling economy if the Kim leadership failed to provide economic relief.

Recently, Mr Cho Han Bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean think-tank, reported that hawks in the North Korean military are upset that after years of sacrifices imposed on soldiers for the nuclear programme, Mr Kim may be walking away from the regime's "treasured sword".

Maintaining organisational discipline and loyalty is key to sustaining Mr Kim's fledgling steps toward peace diplomacy and his own political survival.

If denuclearisation were to progress, how would scientists and technicians feel after having been feted as indispensable to North Korea's existence?

We will probably see more personnel changes if diplomacy picks up momentum.

Political rhetoric that is confusing to the outside world will likely grow if Pyongyang earnestly tries to chart a new path.

Even a dictator like Mr Kim needs to get minimal buy-in from the 25 million people in his country, and his iron fist does have limits.

If his regime fails to manage the changing internal politics, his efforts at external outreach will be in danger. - REUTERS

The writer is a political science professor at Wellesley College.

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