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Inside The Power Struggle In Pyongyang

North Korea's young new leader Kim Jong-un was believed to rely on the counsel of top general Ri Yong-ho, 69, who was suddenly removed Monday for "health" problems. Few believe that line, and see his departure as a sign of a maj

Ri Yong-ho (left), out as North Korea's top military chief, and key advisor to Kim Jong-un (right) (IBTimesUK)
Ri Yong-ho (left), out as North Korea's top military chief, and key advisor to Kim Jong-un (right) (IBTimesUK)
Daniel-Dylan Böhmer

As Kim Jong-il's funeral procession moved through the streets of Pyongyang on December 28 2011, it snowed – a sign that the sky was crying in grief, according to the North Korean propaganda machine. The snowflakes were nature's unwitting contribution to a carefully choreographed ceremony in the North Korean capital, a ceremony designed to pass the message that while the flame of the "Dear Leader" had gone out, the cosmos of his isolated dictatorship remained intact.

Eight men walked beside the limousine bearing Kim's coffin: four generals on one side, and four Party leaders on the other. Leading the politicians was chubby Kim Jong-un, 28, the son of the deceased who for years had been his designated successor.

At the head of the generals in uniforms on the other side of the hearse: Ri Yong-ho, 69, Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army. As usual, his face wore an expression of patient suffering. The dead dictator had built him up to his current high level as he groomed his son as heir to the throne -- Ri was clearly meant to function as a mentor to young Kim, and provide a link to the army.

Flash-forward seven months: the cosmos of North Korea's dictatorship is undergoing major changes -- and Ri Yong-ho has been dismissed.

According to K.C.N.A., the state-run news agency, Ri's health problems were the reason cited by the Politburo of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) for the decision to relieve Ri of all of his Party duties. However, during recent public appearances, Ri had appeared to be in good health, and in any case health in a country with a chronically over-aged elite has never before been a reason for relinquishing power.

Some Korea-watchers think the real explanation behind Ri's removal lies in a power struggle between the country's civil and military leaders. One such observer is Park Hyeong-jung, a researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification in Seoul. The South Korean caught on early to signs of conflict.

"In April, at the fourth Party conference followed by a gathering of the Supreme People's Assembly, there were some interesting appointments that clearly showed that the Party and the political security apparatus were tightening their grip on the military," says Park.

The most significant of these appointments, according to Park, was that of Choe Ryong-hae, a politician close to Kim Jong-un's uncle Jang Song-thaek. He received several promotions -- among them to Vice Marshall and Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission. "That a civilian would fill this function is totally out of the ordinary," says Park.

The appointments were an insult to Ri, Park says, because the sum of his functions made Choe – not Ri -- the number one man in the Party. "It's entirely possible that Ri didn't accept this de facto demotion, and so he had to go."

Chinese model

But staffing issues are also down to money, Park says: "The army has been having supply problems for years. This year it appropriated much more food than usual from farmers. But that move went against the plans of the new elite around Kim Jong-un and his uncle Jang Song-thaek."

Jang particularly wants to change the economy and establish clearer areas of responsibility, based on the Chinese model. However, "this is not about genuine reform" in Park's opinion. "The new leadership clique just wants to bring more foreign currency into the country, and that is more likely to benefit them than the people."

Some in the West were hoping that the recent pop concert with dancers in Mickey Mouse costumes, to which Kim Jong-un attended, was somehow a sign of a "North Korean Spring." This week's moves, Park says, appear to bury that hope.

"Politically speaking, this move is not reform-minded – on the contrary. Its goal appears to be even stronger political control through the Party and the security services."

Park says the Disney-inspired concert was more likely due to the fact that North Korean state media have to try and keep up with the South Korean and Chinese productions that are increasingly filtering into the country.

He says there is no real opposition to the military and Party in North Korea.

Furthermore, says Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, there are no signs of a power struggle between the military and the Party. "The two pillars of the system are far too closely interwoven for them to work against each other in any widespread way," he says. "The most plausible conclusion to be drawn from Ri's fall is mainly that Kim's uncle Jang has managed to increase his own influence."

Snyder says the latest developments could impact North Korea's relationship with China. "It's known that Beijing feels comfortable having Jang among the top leaders," he says. "China has been looking for ways to exercise its influence in North Korea, particularly to keep the nuclear issue in check."

Kim had agreed to a moratorium on the North Korean nuclear weapons program in exchange for US aid, then promptly nullified the deal by testing a long-range rocket. Snyder doesn't believe that the U.S. will pick up where things left off, however. Right now, he says, the presidential elections are the main issue, and a new administration first has to establish its priorities in terms of foreign policy. Until all that's done, he quips: "Washington is as unpredictable as Pyongyang."

Read the original article in German

Photo - IBTimesUK

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Longyearbyen Postcard: World's Northernmost Town Must Face Climate Change — And Russia

The melting of the sea ice in the Far North has accelerated in recent years. The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has become the focal point of the environmental drama gripping the Arctic as well as the geopolitical tensions it is causing there, with Russia in particular.

A statue of a coal miner stands in the center of the photos with houses surronding it, draped around their shoudler is a Ukrainian flag. The environment is snowy and the sky is white from clouds.

A Ukraine flag placed on a statue of a coal miner in the center of Longyearbyen

Steffen Trumpf/dpa/ZUMA
Laura Berny

LONGYEARBYEN — The Longyearbreen glacier, which once unfurled to the sea, is now a shadow of its former self. Only the name of Longyearbyen’s Isfjorden now conveys the idea of something frozen.

“Last January, during the polar winter, the temperature was between 0 and 5 °C. When I went for a walk by the fjord, I could hear the waves. This was not the case before at this time of year,” says Heidi Sevestre. The French glaciologist fell in love with Svalbard as a student, so much so that she now lives here for part of the year.

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Compared to Siberia, Canada’s and Greenland’s High North – the Arctic archipelago, located just over a thousand kilometers from the North Pole – has historically benefited from a slightly more benign climate despite its extreme latitude. Temperatures here range between 5 °C and 15 °C in summer and usually not below -30 °C in the coldest of winter. This relatively “mild" weather has its origin in the Gulf Stream — the marine current which rises up from the Caribbean and runs along the west coast of Svalbard.

But the situation has now changed.

“There has been a lot of talk about the rise in atmospheric temperature for at least 20 years. But in the past three years, ocean temperatures have also risen significantly. This is what is causing the increasingly rapid retreat of the ice pack,” explains Jean-Charles Gallet, a glaciologist who has worked at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) since 2010.

“The sea ice acts like an air conditioner for the ocean, so the more it decreases, the more the ocean warms up. This causes a chain reaction which ends up accelerating the warming process,” adds Eero Rinne, a Finnish specialist on the topic and a researcher at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). Rinne is working on the CRISTAL sea ice satellite mission, slated to go live in 2028 as part of the European Space Agency’s Copernicus program.

Beyond the alarming disappearance of glaciers and ice packs and the threat to polar bears (of which there are still around 300 in the archipelago), global warming is also causing cracks in the infrastructure of the territory, which is covered by permafrost. Landslides are increasingly frequent, and all recently constructed buildings in the region are on stilts.

“It used to rain very little in Svalbard, but now it is getting wetter and wetter, which is weakening the soil,” explains Hanne Hvidtfeldt Christiansen, a Danish-Norwegian scientist and specialist on permafrost at UNIS.

Norwegians kept a low profile about Svalbard's growing crisis, until 2017. That was the year when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was flooded, less than 10 years after its foundation. The facility, dug near a mine in Longyearbyen, the capital of the archipelago, was built to preserve more than a million seeds from a possible cataclysm. The disaster didn’t affect the seeds but left a scar in people’s minds. Even this close to the pole, permafrost is thawing.

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