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Change sweeping North Korea

Drastic changes appear to be taking place in North Korea as its Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) further strengthens its grip and its strongman Kim Jong Il tackles three major tasks: to pave the way for announcing his successor, to minimize whatever damage may result from the birth of a new conservative government in South Korea, which is less friendly to the North, and to normalize the strained relationship with Japan.

The KWP has been scrutinizing the ideologies of high-ranking officials of the party and officials at various organizations, and making new appointments and dismissals in an unprecedented scale. Playing the central role in this undertaking is Kim Johng Chol, the second son of Kim Jong Il and deputy chief of the all powerful Leadership Division of the party, who is said to have been handpicked as his father’s successor. The son is following in the footsteps of his father, who in his young days resorted to purging tactics to consolidate his power.

According to diplomatic sources in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il is preparing to announce his son as the successor after celebrating the centennial of the birth of his father, Kim Il Sung, in 2012.

The key strategist in Pyongyang’s relations with South Korea and Japan is Kim Yang Gon, director of the KWP’s United Front Department. One of his principal tasks is to apply pressure on new South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, with a view to minimizing the change in Seoul’s policies toward the North.

He is also said to be the chief architect of the move to establish direct ties with Japanese political parties by circumventing the government of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, whose weakness is obvious after his Liberal Democratic Party lost its majority in the Upper House of the Diet last year.

In stark contrast with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who flew to Pyongyang twice and signed a joint declaration with Kim Jong Il, Fukuda has been unable to make any move to improve Tokyo’s relations with the North, primarily because of the unresolved issue surrounding the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea.

Fukuda can do nothing other than watch how discussions will proceed between the United States and North Korea on the latter’s denuclearization, and has been irritated because he cannot figure out what Pyongyang’s next move will be.

Pyongyang’s efforts to establish contacts with Japanese political parties have already borne fruit. A committee has been created within the LDP to study various issues related to the Korean Peninsula with Taku Yamasaki, a former LDP vice president, serving as a top adviser. He is known to have close relations with Kim Yong Gon. A similar group has been formed by lawmakers belonging to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and the People’s New Party.

According to sources well informed of the Tokyo-Pyongyang relations, a delegation of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), which visited the North’s capital in February, was given instructions to work toward three major goals: (1) to help the motherland become a “powerful nation” on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth (presumably to prepare for the announcement of the successor to Kim Jong Il), (2) to make Tokyo allow the North Korean passenger-cargo ship Man Gyong Bong 92 to call on Japanese ports, which has been banned since 2006 in retaliation for the test firing of North Korean missiles, and (3) to make the Japanese media more friendly to North Korea.

Ho Jong Man, chief vice chairman of Chongryon, reportedly believes that 2008 represents the final opportunity to work on the Japanese political circles with a view to lifting economic sanctions against Pyongyang and thus to prove his organization’s loyalty to Kim Jong Il.

Public security authorities believe, meanwhile, that the KWP is also seeking to re-establish friendly relations with the Japanese Communist Party. The two parties have not been talking to each other since the Japanese communists denounced North Korea’s downing of a South Korean jetliner in 1987.

The motive behind this move may be to invite a delegation of the JCP to the North in an attempt to put pressure on the LDP and the DPJ.

Chongryon is also making friendly gestures to the Japanese media by meeting reporters and offering to arrange visits to Pyongyang by TV crews. The purpose is to gain support for its campaign to have Tokyo lift the economic sanctions.

Meanwhile, Rodon Sinmu, the official organ of the KWP, fired a harshly worded broadside against the Fukuda government March 19, condemning the auctioning of the Chongryon headquarters building in retaliation for failing to pay taxes and the continued ban on visits by the Man Gyong Bong 92, branding Fukuda as no different from his staunchly anti-Pyongyang predecessor Shinzo Abe.

Such bitter criticism against Fukuda may mean either that the North has lost all hopes of restoring ties with Japan while he is in power or that Pyongyang is creating a network to besiege the Fukuda government.

But Kim Jong Il himself is keenly aware of serious dangers he is facing because of dramatic changes in the circumstances surrounding him after Lee Myung Bak came to power. Law enforcement officials in Seoul have started working more closely than ever with their Japanese counterparts to determine who masterminded the abduction of a number of Japanese and South Korean citizens by North Korea.

For example, the South Korean police authorities have obtained a testimony from actress Choi Eun Heui that the abductions were ordered directly by a person close to Kim Jong Il. Choi herself was abducted while touring Europe in 1978 but later escaped the North.

The North Korean leader is obviously in a great hurry to normalize the relations with Japan before new evidence on the abduction issue comes to light. That is why he is endeavoring to improve the ties with the U.S. and to announce his successor smoothly.

But these attempts represent a major gamble, and Kim Jong Il knows that he has to move fast. No wonder Chongryon recently received a fax message from Son Il Ho, Pyongyang’s ambassador in charge of normalizing the relations with Tokyo, ordering the association to “complete all tasks expeditiously.”

This is an abridged translation of an article from the April issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic topics.