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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Military Promotions in the DPRK

by | August 13th, 2013 | 07:00 am

major military promotions

In the course of work we are doing on the North Korean political system, we thought it might be worthwhile to look at the pattern of promotions into the general ranks; in a post in May, we looked at turnover at the very top of the military hierarchy, those that held positions in the NDC and other top political institutions. We noted that turnover has been substantial during the succession period. More changes have subsequently occurred and we will report on them shortly.

As it turns out, the KCNA reports on promotion orders to the ranks of—in descending order—Vice Marshal, General, Colonel General, Lieutenant General and Major General (Kim Jong Un’s promotion to Marshal last year was also reported, of course); they even provide names. The figure above reports the totals for each year since 1997. The vast majority of these promotions are to Major General; for example, this year, of the 49 promotions only one was to the full General rank (Choe Pu Il*) with 10 promoted to Lieutenant General and 38 to Major General.

Frankly, it is hard to know what to conclude from this information. The KCNA does not report on deaths, retirements, demotions or purges so we don’t really know what the net turnover is: whether the general ranks are expanding or contracting. We also expected to see somewhat sharper patterns.

Nonetheless, it looks like the succession has indeed been associated with an increase in entry into the general ranks, at least initially. Promotions in 2010 were the highest on record; the last comparable year was 1997, around the roll-out of the military-first doctrine and with significant additions at the very top (four new Vice Marshals). We don’t have average ages, but we have tracked the ages in a number of top institutional positions and they have fallen in recent years as a result of generational turnover. However, while Kim Jong Un’s first year in office was marked by almost 100 promotions, 2013 has seen a mass promotion around Kim Jong Il’s birthday and that’s it. Interestingly, it was the first time in nine years, and only third time since 1997, that there was no mass promotion on Kim Il Sung’s birthday. There was also no mass promotion on the 60th anniversary of the armistice, as there was for the 50th. Again, it is unclear, as with so many things in North Korea, what this might mean or if it means anything.

Building loyalty through promotion only works if there is some benefit attached, and we were reminded of a story in Radio Free Asia from February on how generals are paid (with the usual “caveat emptors”). According to the story, the regime pays high-ranking military officers dollar stipends on top of their formal salaries: four-star generals get around $1,200 a month on their cards, three-star generals $1,000 and two-star generals $700. The most significant fact is that these stipends are paid in dollars. The RFA story estimates the average government worker’s monthly salary was in the 2,000 to 6,000 won range. According to DailyNK the current exchange rate is about 8000 to the dollar on the black market which would yield less than dollar-a-month (that’s right, not a dollar-a-day) incomes. Of course, few probably live on such earnings but the important point is the relative affluence of the top brass.

* Interestingly, this was actually Choe’s 2nd promotion to General – he had previously been promoted at the 3rd Party Conference (in September 2010, along with Kim Jong Un, Kim Kyong Hui and others) and then demoted at some point afterwards. Michael Madden provides the definitive breakdown of the re-promotion here.