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N. Korean leader’s public military activities spike upward this year

More publicly reported military activities could be due to Kim Jong-un's attempt to distance himself from struggling N. Korean economy, experts say

June 6, 2023 - 16:03 By Ji Da-gyum
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (center) is accompanied by his daughter Ju-ae as he talks with members of the Non-permanent Satellite Launch Preparatory Committee in Pyongyang on May 16 to inspect the country's first military reconnaissance satellite, in this photo released by the North's official Korean Central News Agency. (Yonhap)

The frequency of publicly reported military activities by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been on a notable rise since the beginning of this year compared to the past few years.

Kim conducted 12 public military activities by the end of April this year, according to analysis and data provided by the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification headquartered in Seoul. The total number of such activities increased to 13 by the end of May, including Kim's inspection of preparations for launching a "military reconnaissance satellite" during his visit to the National Aerospace Development Administration on May 16.

This marks an almost twofold increase in the frequency of publicly reported military activities within just five months of this year compared to 2021 and 2022, when there were six and seven such activities, respectively.

The relatively low number of public reports on Kim's military activities in 2022 is noteworthy, especially considering North Korea's record-breaking launches of at least 95 ballistic and other missiles in the year.

By end-April, Kim's total publicly reported activities amounted to 27, with the highest number of engagements in the military sector, according to the KINU. With the inclusion of two recent activities -- Kim's inspection of a satellite launch preparation on May 16 and a commemoration of the first anniversary of North Korean military officer Hyon Chol-hae's death on May 19 -- the total number of publicly reported activities stands at 29 as of Tuesday.

In 2022, Kim's publicly reported activities totaled 77, with seven of them being military-related. Therefore, there has been a noticeable increase in publicly reported military activities in the first half of this year, while the overall frequency of publicly reported non-military and military activities does not differ significantly from the previous year.

Hong Min, director of the North Korean Research Division at the KINU, suggested that the concentration of publicly reported activities in the military sector could be a result of Kim's deliberate move to distance himself from the North's ongoing economic woes.

"Since last year, there has been a significant decline in Kim Jong-un's publicly reported activities in the economic sector, indicating a shift in the responsibility of economic policies being entrusted to the Cabinet," Hong said.

"If there were positive economic outcomes, Kim Jong-un would personally take credit for them. However, since that is not the case, it appears that he is seeking to maintain a certain distance and shift responsibility to the Cabinet."

Kim's public activities in the military sector from January to May of this year have already surpassed his previous record of 12 military activities in 2020.

In 2018, when the two Koreas established an atmosphere of reconciliation, there were only three publicly reported military activities by Kim. However, the number surged to 23 in 2019, following an abrupt breakdown at a summit in the Vietnamese city of Hanoi between Kim and then-US President Donald Trump in February.

Kim's military activities are tallied based on the number of reported occurrences in state media and the corresponding dates of those reports.

Kim's seven inspections of live-fire military drills and his activities related to weapons developments and tests made up the largest portion of his 12 military activities over the four-month period, according to data provided by the KINU.

Most of the military exercises and missile launches occurred in March and April, coinciding with regular, defensive-oriented field training exercises conducted by South Korea and the United States.

In March, the North Korean leader oversaw military simulation drills targeting airfields in South Korean territory with nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and live-fire drills simulating tactical nuclear attacks against South Korea.

That month, Kim supervised the testing of a nuclear-capable underwater attack drone, called Haeil-2, and live-fire launch drills of nuclear-capable long-range strategic cruise missiles. Kim also inspected tactical nuclear warheads designed to hit key targets in South Korean territory hours before a US aircraft carrier and its strike group entered a naval base in South Korea.

In addition, Kim guided the launch of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile, which took place hours before the first in-person summit between South Korean and Japanese leaders in March. The North Korean leader supervised the first test launch of the Hwasong-18 ICBM in April.

Kim also notably convened three meetings of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea over the course of three consecutive months -- February, March and April -- deviating from the past trend of holding such meetings every six months.