The regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un recently consolidated power by elevating and demoting key Communist, internal security, and military leaders amid signs a third underground nuclear test is imminent.
A U.S. official told the Free Beacon there are signs of increased activity at North Korea’s underground testing facility near Kilju, a mountainous region in the northeast part of the country.
U.S. officials said a nuclear test by North Korea is expected because similar underground blasts were carried out in 2006 and 2009 following long-range missile tests.
"The North Koreans certainly have the ability to conduct a nuclear test," said one official. "It wouldn’t be surprising if they choose to respond to new UN sanctions with such a provocative act."
Kim formally took over as supreme leader of the rogue nuclear state following his elevation to chairman of the ruling communist Workers’ Party of Korea April 11. He became National Defense Commission chairman two days later.
While most international attention in recent weeks has focused on Pyongyang’s failed long-range missile launch, U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring North Korea say Kim and his power circle quietly carried out significant leadership changes around two party meetings held in mid-April.
One-third of the ruling Politburo was dismissed or replaced; the changes reflected the growing power of Kim’s aunt (and Kim Jong Il’s sister) Kim Kyung Hee and her husband, Jang Sung Taek.
Government and private analysts say the personnel changes reflect the return to power of Party and internal security officials with nearly half the Politburo put in place by Kim’s father in 2010 removed.
Personnel moves are one of the few intelligence indicators of who has power in the extremely closed communist regime and are important for U.S. intelligence agencies in analyzing actions by the nuclear armed, heavily militarized regime.
In the recent leadership changes, four officials were promoted and seven were fired.
The main winner in the power shift was Choe Ryong Hae, an alternate Politburo member who moved up to the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the most senior level in the highest organ of political power. The promotion makes him the most senior military authority after Kim even though he does not have professional military experience.
Though not a professional soldier, Choe effectively outranks Korean People’s Army Chief of Staff Ri Yong Ho and puts Ri’s power and influence into question.
Choe was a close confidante of Kim Jong Il and is part of the ruling Kim dynasty.
Another major promotion was the elevation of Kim Won Hong, who was not on the Politburo in the past but who was appointed head of the Ministry of State Security, the secret political police and intelligence service.
"There does indeed appear to be a shift from military to party," said Bob Collins, a South Korea based Pyongyang watcher.
Collins said the recent missile launch dominated news headlines "but what was missed and what is of real significance is that all of the political moves that were made now virtually guarantee continuance of missile, nuke and conventional threats and provocations, not just an April launch or one more nuke test."
The restructuring appears designed to ease the transition from the all-powerful Kim Jong Il regime to the inexperienced Kim Jong Un rule by giving the Party more influence and integrating the military and party leadership, Collins said.
Kim Won Hong’s promotion included a top spot on the National Defense Commission that was used in the past as a base for military decisions and management. "This is quite a mercurial rise, to be sure," Collins said.
Of the changes in power structure to more Party-oriented units, Collins said: "Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il could have ruled from their bathtubs if they were of a mind to do so, regardless of the Party structure. But under Kim Jong Un, who knows?"
Collins said Choe’s elevation to the new director of the General Political Department makes him "the Party’s lead watchdog of the military."
The group is "basically, an anti-coup agency that reports to the party and Kim Jong-un."
Victor Cha, a Georgetown University specialist on North Korea, said Kim is bringing back the Party and returning to a system of "neo-Juche," the hardline self-reliance ideology of the 1950s. "We see it in the rhetoric and the return of phrases similar to those used by Kim Il-sung," Cha, a former National Security Council staff aide, told the Free Beacon.
Cha wrote in his just-released book The Impossible State that Kim Jong Un’s dilemma is "the state he inherits is not sustainable under this new neo-Juche ideology; yet it is the only ideology that can legitimate the new leadership."
From the military, Vice Marshall Kim Jong Gak also was promoted to full Politburo membership and was made head of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces.
A fourth promotion was that of Worker’s Party Secretary Pak To Chun, the top official in charge of North Korea’s weapons industries, who was promoted to full Politburo membership over other senior Party leaders and is now the most senior official on the National Defense Commission.
Army logistics chief Hyon Chol Hae was made a vice marshal and full member of the Politburo and also made vice minister of defense.
Losers in the power shift include U Tong Chuck, who lost his seat on the Politburo and NDC, and Jon Pyong Ho, who was dismissed from the Politburo. Kim Yong Chun was demoted from the top post at the People’s Armed Forces Ministry; he remains a NDC vice chairman but fell in his standing on the Politburo.
The recent Party meetings also continued to mix civilian security officials, military officers, and Party leaders.
Analysts say the previously all-powerful National Defense Commission, utilized by Kim Jong Il, could be eclipsed by the Party’s Central Military Commission under Kim Jong Un’s new power lineup.
Collins said the Party’s Central Military Commission is now "the most technologically advanced and military heavy CMC in North Koran history."
In the past, CMC members were relatively uneducated but the current membership has advanced military science and technology knowledge, something that "does not bode well for the U.S. or South Korea in dealing with Pyongyang relative to nukes, missiles or provocations."
"This is a pretty tough lineup and in my mind, an intensifier of North Koran military provocative strategy," Collins said.
U.S. officials said Kim Jong Un appears to be focusing more on the dire economic problems facing the country through Jang Song Taek and Kim Kyong Hui, who is now a senior-most Politburo member.
Jang is also a Politburo member and recently was promoted one slot up in rank on the National Defense Commission.
Analysts say Jang is now considered more powerful than Oh Kuk Ryol, a general who was closely aligned with Kim Jong Il.
U.S. intelligence officials said Oh was linked to North Korea’s past manufacture of high-quality counterfeit $100 bills called "super-notes." Oh’s son, Oh Se Wan, is part of a North Korean power elite group linked to illicit drug trafficking and currency counterfeiting.
Bruce Bechtol, a North Korean specialist and political science professor at Angelo State University in Texas, said the current leadership shift is very predictable.
"The key thing to keep in mind is that since the founding of North Korea, this has not been a ‘top down’ system, or even a system run by a Politburo," Bechtol said.
"No one else has ever had power, except for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, in any more than one key institution, and thus the leader of the country has always led by ‘divide and conquer,’" he said.
The question now is whether Kim Jong Un can consolidate power like his father and grandfather and control key Party units. "The jury is still out on that," Bechtol said, noting that Kim did not have enough time to develop a power base before his father died in the key institutions including the Party, the military, the security services, and the Kim family inner circle.
Bechtol said Jang Sang Taek and his wife are powerful but they lack a power base within the military.
Similarly, the generals who run the military have no real base in the party, he said.
"Thus, right now, we are seeing a transition, where the elite and the generals hope—for their survival—that Kim Jong Un can consolidate his power enough to control all of the institutions."