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What The News Out Of North Korea Really Means

If you want to sound really smart each day, one of your must reads has to include NightWatch. It's a daily bit of analysis by John McCreary, who knows what he's talking about. He spent 38 years doing intelligence analysis for the Department of Defense and since his retirement has been doing it for the public using only non-classified sources. He's one of the best at telling you, "This is what this really means." For example, here's his take today on the news out of North Korea (Note McCreary uses different English spellings for Korean names than most news organizations do):

North Korea: Update. The Korean Central News Agency announced several more appointments today. General Kim Chong-un and Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho were appointed Vice Chairmen of the Korean Workers' Party Central Military Commission. General Kim Chong-un and his aunt General Kim Kyong-hui were appointed to the Party Central Committee. Vice Marshal Ri also was appointed the Chief of the General Staff. Ri is a protégé of the Kim family.

Comment: Today's appointments complete the bridge that links military and party authority. The young Kim has both, but in both domains he is shadowed and shepherded by his aunt, his father's protégés and by his uncle Chang Song-taek and his protégés. This young man has no independent authority. He is in training. A regent troika lurks behind the scenes that is composed of the Chang family leaders and the newest Vice Marshal in the army.

Kim Chong-il, meanwhile, has given up none of his positions of authority , such as Chairman of the National Defense Commission, head of the party and head of all the party organizations of importance. Kim Chong-il does not trust his youngest son to govern anything, which explains the regency troika.

The various appointments and elevation of an untested youth in this fashion has no precedent in recent North Korean history. the process looks poorly and hastily thought out in terms of competence and ability, but crafted to try to keep the Kim family in charge.

It suggests that Kim Chong-il is sick and could die with little warning. Appointing neophytes and civilians to four-star military ranks looks ill-conceived and prone to incite resistance from professional military ranks.  The leadership is becoming much less stable and durable.

Nevertheless, the announcements leave no room for doubt that the heir-apparent is the third son, Kim Chong-un. That does not mean he will ever govern.

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Now, this is analysis, not journalism, so there's a certain amount of speculation here, but, tellingly, it's informed speculation. When you're dealing with news out of North Korea, that's often the best you can get.